Jackie Kurz cares about trans rights, queer rights, Black Lives Matter, school funding and livable wages for new teachers. Kurz, 16, is a Bellingham High School student, who preregistered to vote one day at lunch when visitors came by her group to register teens approaching voting age.
“I think it’s really important to know what your city is up to because you live there and you’re part of the community,” Kurz said.
Voter turnout, however, among 18- to 24-year-olds is the lowest among any age group. That age group represented less than 6% of votes cast in Washington last year. Only 39% of them reportedly cast ballots in Washington’s midterm election, compared to over 80% of people aged 65 and older.
Even-year elections are always exciting because there are midterm and presidential elections, said Zachary Cohen, president of Western Washington University’s Young Democrats chapter. But in the odd years, participation is always lower among voters.
In this year’s odd-year election, what issues are on the minds of young Whatcom County voters, what are their voting habits and intentions, and how are they trying to change their community?
Having a say
Rent increases, renter protections, homelessness, justice and racism and discrimination are top interests of young people, Cohen said. Whatcom County executive and several council races are on the ballot this year, providing an opportunity to decide who has a say on climate action and housing affordability. The issue of criminal justice is on the ballot, with the election of a county sheriff.
Bellingham council member and mayoral candidate Kristina Michele Martens finds young voters to be informed, compared to her generation which she says fell behind. She said she’s seen significant interest from young people on renter protections.
Gracie Abernathy and Kassidy Aasheim, both 19, plan to attend Western Washington University next fall. They are active voters in their hometowns, and evaluate candidates based on their support for racial minorities and queer communities, commitment to environmentalism, scandal-free online history and approachability. They’re excited to switch their registration to Whatcom County soon.
“I really want to learn to become more politically active in the local space, especially in a college town because we have a lot of say in what happens… [and] we’re a big portion of the population,” Abernathy said.
Aasheim and Abernathy do their own research, looking up races online, diving into candidates’ histories and watching headline-news on TikTok. Their mothers fill them in on local issues and candidates, and they’re excited to become part of an educated student body who can influence their vote.
“School is one of the best ways to learn about what’s going on everywhere because students are literally everywhere in the town and all meet at the same place,” Aasheim said. “Those who have been here longer, they know more, witness more.”
Voting local … or not
But, it can be hard for young people to stay engaged, despite their eagerness.
“I am concerned with national elections, I’m definitely less involved in local,” Abernathy said. “I want to be more politically involved, but I’m just not there yet. It does take a lot of time.”
Sam Borcherding is a senior at WWU who’s been registered to vote in Whatcom County since he first moved from Montesano. He’s interested in taxing wealthy people more, abortion rights and queer rights. He, too, finds it hard to stay involved while working and being a full-time student.
“I don’t even know who the candidates are that are running locally for the most part,” Borcherding said. “I feel like a lot of people my age, if they’re not able to look into it beforehand, probably just read the little pamphlet that’s given to you. For the most part, I think [voting] is kind of done right then and there for local elections.”
But Borcherding commits to voting every year like Abernathy and Aashein. For other students, lack of familiarity with local issues and electoral races deters them from voting.
Lulay cares about queer rights and Black Lives Matter, and values compassionate elected officials — but she doesn’t want to be an uneducated voter. With personal preoccupations in her life, Lulay said she doesn’t have enough time to become educated on local politics enough to vote.
“I just don’t ever hear about local politics,” Lulay said. “You have to go out of your way to hear about it or learn about it. It’s not just something that falls into your lap.”
Martens urges young voters to get past this hurdle, and do the homework on every open seat for every election in Bellingham and Whatcom County.
Does one vote make a difference?
For some young voters, the system isn’t working.
Huard cares about infrastructure improvements, small government and housing affordability. He tries to vote bipartisan whenever he thinks there’s an important election underway. But, he doesn’t think he can make a difference.
“Obviously your voice matters and voting matters,” Huard said. “But what’s the difference of my voice as one vote?”
“I think people care a lot about the issues — even people who aren’t engaged in a political system have opinions about their community,” Cohen said. “It’s really just distrust and a lack of confidence in the political system currently that is driving a lot of folks away.”
He noted that “young voters hear big promises about affordable housing, helping houseless folks, reproductive rights and combating racism, but often see no progress.” In local races, incumbent Democrats are often challenged by candidates whose positions are not much different. Young voters begin to think that no matter which way they vote, local issues are going to stay the same. If any progress is made, the slow grind of government is too slow for young voters.
For Martens, engaging in political processes, however slow and discouraging, is “a do-or-die for all of us” because eventually, hard work will make substantial changes in years to come.
Power and capacity
Some young voters have taken to the system themselves to make the change they wish to see.
Jace Cotton, 25, is at the cusp of Generation Z, and he’s running for Bellingham City Council’s at-large position against opponents twice his age.
“Our city council was meant to be our legislative branch of government but we have a culture on the council that doesn’t really believe in originating ordinances,” said Cotton, a WWU alumnus and campaign organizer in Whatcom County. Because of this culture, he contends, a lot of things end up being driven by the mayor, when really the city council is meant to be the most responsive branch.
While living a young person’s life in Bellingham, trying to make money and pay rent, Cotton said he’s had to sacrifice free time and a social life to dive into the electoral race.
“I think I have to demonstrate a lot more competency than maybe some of my older counterparts just because there is a skepticism of young people knowing what they need to know to run for office,” Cotton said.
For Cotton, the power of the young people’s voice is valuable in office and in numbers at the voting booth.
“Local government is not just a level of government where we can make a huge difference — it’s one where we disproportionately have the power and the capacity,” Cotton said. “Ten people cannot shift an electoral outcome at the presidential level, but 10 people can at the local level … that is one way that I think young people can really flex and build their power in a political environment that is pretty disenfranchising for most young people.”
Cotton hopes to engage more young voters than the older, whiter and more conservative electorate that customarily votes in the odd-year elections. Speaking with excited first-time voters could be a winning factor, Cotton said, especially during the primary.
“The primary turnout for young people is rough and it’s low turnout across the board,” Cotton said. “This is a great time to plug in and make sure that the things we care about are still front and center of this primary.”
Activating new voters
WWU’s Young Democrats works hard, along with the Associated Students’ office of civic engagement and Western Votes, to reach and register new young voters on campus.
With candidate endorsements and informational fall meetings for incoming freshmen, Young Democrats familiarizes students with local issues, races, candidates and how to vote, Cohen said. Young Democrats hopes to rack up young voter turnout in local elections with in-person conversations in Red Square, door knocking, and using the club’s Vote-mobile, a portable station to help students register.
Salish Current attempted to contact the Young Republicans of Washington and the WWU Young Americans for Freedom chapter about their programs, but received no reply.
Cotton urges young people who have recently moved to Whatcom County to switch their registration from their hometown. “When we don’t do that, we cede a lot of our ability to shape the houses we live in, the jobs we have and the community,” he said.
As young voters approach the election season, they’re likely paying attention to high-profile mayor and county executive race because they’re more recognizable, Cohen said. They’re also likely paying more attention to Community First Whatcom’s Initiatives 1 and 2 that seek to increase the minimum wage by $2 in the next two years and require landlords to pay tenants three times the city’s fair-market rent as relocation assistance if rent is increased more than 8%, Cohen said.
— Reported by Kai Uyehara
[Ed.: The League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County has had a robust voter registration and Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) campaign for more than five years. They target underserved groups, including young people in high school and college as well as individuals served at the county’s food banks, seniors, the unhoused, library patrons and individuals served in other congregate settings. They also register folks at events when requested. They are proud of the number of individuals who are registered and turn out to vote in Whatcom, especially the turn-out rate of the 18–24 age group that last year had a rate of return of 51.3% in comparison to the statewide rate for this age group of 39.5%. / June 28, 2023]
Voters can find resources and registration on the Whatcom County auditor’s website.
Hear from the candidates: League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County Primary Election Forums, July 11 and 12