York County teachers combat low voter turnout


Melanie Gurner, a 22-year-old York College student, voted for the first time in 2012 in the presidential election.

She intends to vote again in 2016 and said she understands its importance.

"And now debates and information are clogging up every single aspect of media — it's almost like you have to pay attention, but that's a good thing," she said.

Gurner, however, has never voted in a local election, she said.

"It's not that I don't find them important, but being away from home and not being able to keep up with the issues that are going on in the town I grew up in, it makes me feel like I'm not qualified and prepared to weigh in on those in any kind of way," the Massachusetts native said. "I've been away at school every year I've been eligible."

Other young Americans also have been away.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, voting and registration rates tend to increase with age, with only 17 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 casting a vote last year.

That compared to nearly 60 percent of those 65 and older, data from the bureau state.

Taking aim at those low numbers, the Department of State is recognizing National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday and has scheduled a Twitter Town Hall from noon to 1 p.m. in which officials will answer questions about online voter registration.

To participate, use the hashtags #RegisterOnlinePA and #CelebrateNVRD.

In York County: The low voting numbers among young Pennsylvanians are similar to the national data, according to the same census data.

In 2014, approximately 18 percent of the younger demographic voted; just over 30 percent had registered but did not vote; and the remaining young adults were unregistered.

Addison McKey, 21, also cited the difficulty of voting with an absentee ballot.

"They're just a hassle, and they barely count anyway," she said, noting she was unsure whether she'd be voting in the next presidential election. "I don't know, I guess I'm just uninspired by my potential options. Maybe that will change, maybe not."

Teaching: The social studies teachers at Susquehannock High School in Southern York County School District try to emphasize the importance of participating in the democratic system with their students.

"In American history, we talk about people who have not had the right to vote and how people now can take it for granted," teacher Matthew Amberman said. "We use those historical examples, and a lot of the time students are shocked at the lengths people have gone through to get that right."

AP U.S. History and U.S. History II teacher Robert Cousineau said it's something his classes are able to take a step further given the coursework.

"We talk about the power it can bring to certain people," he said. "We discuss how without it, we could be powerless to make changes."

Bill Kerr, who teaches government and economics classes, discusses the logistics of registering and voting with his students in addition to helping them identify some of their own perspectives.

"In the government course, they have the opportunity to see where they fall on the political spectrum," he said. "We answer questions like, 'What is a liberal? A Republican? What does it mean to be right or left wing?' These are phrases and words they're going to hear quite a bit, and it's important that they understand what they mean before they identify in one way or the next."

Not participating: "There's a reason older people have a lot of their interests protected," said government, economics and AP Psychology teacher Kevin Lawrence. "It's because they show up to vote in very large numbers. Those who are 18-25 do not."

While teachers do engage with freshman and sophomore students about citizenship and community engagement, voting does not particularly strike a chord with them, said Kristen Hamilla, who teaches U.S. History II and psychology.

"It can be difficult to get people excited about something they just aren't allowed to do yet," she said.

For a high school student, there are a handful of issues that can be more pressing than an upcoming election, Kerr joked, noting his daughter was far more concerned about college applications.

"I was like that," U.S. History I and geography teacher Abby Kocher said. "In 2008, I voted, but it's also because it wasn't raining that day and because I wasn't busy. At that point in your life, when you're younger, you know, you're not married, you don't have kids, you're not thinking of the future in a big picture kind of way."

Kocher said she worked with a student who was a first-generation American.

"We talk about how in other places they migrate or go out and risk their lives to vote," she said. "I have a student whose family just moved here, and they use their right to vote to illustrate that they're American citizens."

Citizenship: "America as a nation votes at a much lower rate than other democratic nations," Lawrence said. "However, America is the most politically engaged by using other means. One out of four people have contacted their legislators, and a lot of people, especially younger people, are engaged in civic activities. People don't necessarily think of being politically engaged when they think of community outreach, but that is certainly part of it."

Hamilla echoed the sentiment: "We have certainly done our jobs as social studies teachers when they are not only voting but actively engaging with their community and fully engage in the process."