On Friday, Bernie Sanders spoke to on-brand supporters in Brooklyn. It was a photogenic night in Greenpoint, the air chilled, the Manhattan skyline framing the stage, and the crowd mostly filled with twentysomethings carrying signs broadcasting the future they wanted to believe in. The senator said that the country had a moral obligation to leave the next generation with a world worth living in. The smartphones hovering in the air, documenting the entire event for posterity (or at least Instagram), bobbed in approval.
Three miles south, Chloe Napolitano-Swift and Nina Weinstock were eating pizza and debating the architectural philosophy governing SpongeBob SquarePants’s decision to live in a damp pineapple. They were also getting ready to phone bank for Bernie Sanders. Napolitano-Swift and Weinstock are in the 8th grade. They may not be old enough to vote, but they happen to be skilled archaeologists of electoral Internet flotsam.
Weinstock, 14, says she started caring about Sanders "when my mom did." But she did her own research, and her reasons for supporting him don’t sound much different from those offered by people old enough to cast ballots. "Hillary wanted a war," she says. "Bernie took the high road. Bernie doesn’t take money from Wall Street." For garnish, she throws in the fact that his average donation has hovered around $27. Napolitano-Swift, 13, says she usually thinks politics are "stupid," but got curious about the election after some classmates got in trouble for arguing about Trump and Sanders. She was babysitting one night, and turned on a Republican debate. "This is my future!" she remembers thinking. "I need to care about this! It matters! Everyone’s being racist. There was a shooting at an elementary school! I don’t want that to happen anymore."
They also have many opinions about the other candidates — ones that make it clear that they get most of their news from Facebook. ("They’re really good at memes," Napolitano-Swift's mom, Gabby, says.) "Bernie didn’t get a small loan from his dad," Napolitano-Swift says, after doing a practice read of the phone bank script, imagining ending a call with someone not feeling the Bern with an improvised, "Bye, Felicia!" Her 10-year-old brother Dante, who was playing on a mini elliptical machine during this entire conversation, pointed his finger authoritatively in the air and added, "A small loan of a million dollars!"
"Cruz," Napolitano-Swift adds, "why is he even running? His parents are Canadian!" Dante, still pedaling, administers a quick fact check. "I have no problem with Hillary," Weinstock says. "If Hillary becomes president, I’m fine with her. There are only a few minor differences between them."
"But all the other candidates," Dante finishes, having now migrated over to the corner of the dining table, "are another story!"
After a while the teenagers retreated, leaving their moms to do the actual business of phone banking. But their parents were clearly proud of their kids, and the fact that they were so invested in the election. "I had no idea they knew so much. They even knew about the $27. I only learned about that last week!"
These 8th graders are definitely not the only people too young to vote and also too impatient to wait until they’re 18 to get involved. And a few of them have already accomplished impressive things.
In places like Iowa, the mecca for retail politicking, candidates can’t reach every cranny of the state, and have to be strategic about where they go looking for votes. Which means that Keota, population 1,000, doesn’t get many presidential visitors — something that three high school students tried to change this year. After their lobbying, Martin O’Malley, Rick Santorum, and Hillary Clinton all stopped by.
Seventeen-year-old Abby Schulte is a fan of the former Secretary of State, and says it was her idea to try and get the Democratic front-runner to come to Keota and discuss her ideas on how to help rural schools. There are 17 people in Schulte’s graduating class. Schulte and her two friends sent Clinton a letter, created a Twitter account, and started going to a bunch of events, trying to get her attention. Their persistence eventually paid off, and Clinton held an event at the school. Seven hundred people showed up to watch — basically the whole town.
"It was so amazing," Schulte says. "There were a lot of Secret Service people. We have one cop in town, so it was sort of culture shock."
Schulte says she first got into politics back in 6th grade when her class visited the State Capitol, and plans to study political science at Simpson College next fall. Her parents aren’t super into politics, she says, adding that she took them to their first caucus this year. Schulte also tried canvassing for the first time. It was pretty easy, especially since all the people who answered the doors already knew who she was. She’s resistant to the idea that one person can’t have an impact on the country. "One vote isn’t going to change an election," she concedes, "but I know I’ve convinced people to vote this year. You have more power than you think. If you don’t try and use it, you’ll never know."
Down in South Carolina, 18-year-old Alex Chalgren, who first got interested in the election when he was still 17, is equally optimistic about his chances of influencing the Republican contest. He was recently promoted to be the national deputy director of Students for Trump, shortly after meeting "the big guy" himself at a rally in Florence. Trump told Chalgren that he was doing "a great job."
"We took a selfie together," Chalgren says, "and he took my card and everything. It was awesome."
Chalgren admits that many people his age don’t agree with him about Trump, and he told "This American Life" earlier this year that many Trump fans don’t necessarily agree with his reasons for liking the candidate. The high school student, a gay, black conservative, has cited his belief that Trump agrees with gay marriage as a reason to support him, despite the fact that Trump hasn’t really said anything along those lines during his run.
"Having met him firsthand, I know that he is not this terrible person that people like to paint him to be," Chalgren says. "He is a wonderful man … When you look at the demographics of Students for Trump, you’ll see all sorts of skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, sexual orientation, an amalgam of things that makes us unique. We’re not bound to any one stereotype, per se. We’re not that rich, white male, you know, sitting on the porch with a rifle in his hand, that sort of thing. He’s very accepting, I believe, of many sorts of people."
And so, Chalgren is working hard to elect him. Back in early December, when most were still skeptical about the feasibility of a Trump campaign, Students for Trump was only in four states, Chalgren says. Now, it’s in 44. He thinks that after the primaries, if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, all the young people who love Bernie will join team Trump, spurred by his business background. "I hope students will see that soon, at least," Chalgren says.
Two high school students in Oklahoma had the opposite reaction to Trump. Back in January, when the candidate visited Tulsa, 16-year-old Kieran King-Sellars and his 18-year-old friend Parker Boswell wanted to go to the rally to see the other side — and show that not everyone in their red state liked Trump. However, the rally was at noon on a school day, and King-Sellars’s parents said that he couldn’t skip class. So, he spent the night at his grandpa’s house, and slipped away undetected. He and Boswell made a giant sign, and sneaked it into the rally by hiding it in Boswell’s cowboy boots.
They wanted to wait until Trump started talking about the wall to take out their sign. They listened to Sarah Palin speak as they waited for Trump to arrive, which took about two hours. The sign was eventually ripped up by another attendee, and security escorted the teenagers out of the rally. When King-Sellars got home, his parents took his car keys away. He was grounded.
Still, he says, it was "100 percent worth it" — especially since their actions went viral, and ended up in the newspaper. As for the rest of the candidates, King-Sellars, who will not be able to vote this year, likes John Kasich and Bernie Sanders. Boswell is a bit more conservative, and likes Kasich best. Both are excited about being more politically active. "This was one of my first opportunities to get involved," Boswell says. "I’m inspired to do more in the future."
Oliver York, on the other hand, wants to make it so high schoolers can vote on these important issues. Sixteen-year-olds in Takoma Park, Maryland, became the youngest voters in the country in 2013, and now teenagers in San Francisco are eager to start voting in local elections too. York, a 16-year-old junior who is fighting for this issue locally and nationally, says he thinks it’s "pretty likely" it will end up on the ballot this fall. The initiative needs six Board of Supervisors cosponsors to make it to the voters; it currently has four. And, York adds, the idea just "makes so much sense" — although he also acknowledges that many adults, the people with the power to change the law, often think it sounds crazy when they first hear about it.
"Voting trends are not good," he argues. "They’ve been going down and down. The earlier you start voting, the longer and more consistently you vote. This campaign is about making lifelong voters." And so, York and his colleagues have been visiting local organizations and legislators to try and win support; just recently, they visited Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office. Young people are also fighting to make this happen in other cities this year, he adds, including Jersey City and Richmond, California.
Even if the idea becomes law in the Bay Area, it won’t come in time for the 2016 race, and it still wouldn’t let them vote in the presidential race. Unless young people can convince the old people running the country to change the Constitution, federal elections remain off-limits, leaving young people to keep thinking up new ways to get involved however they can.
Not that it’s not annoying, letting people you don’t necessarily agree with decide the contours of your future. As Napolitano-Swift puts it, "I wish I could vote, but it would be illegal." However, she has a back-up plan. "If Trump wins, I’m walking across the Rainbow Bridge to Canada. It’s actually called that, look it up." Unfortunately, even if she migrates north, she’ll still have to wait several election cycles before she’ll be allowed to vote for that future her favorite presidential candidate keeps bringing up.