It was the last discussion question in Oliver Haydock’s senior constitutional law class at Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester: Is voting a right, and should it be a responsibility?
To many of Haydock’s students, the answer was simple: Voting is not something they — or anybody — should be forced to do because there is no moral imperative to cast a ballot.
“We do not have an obligation. By voting, I feel like we’re saying something, which is our freedom of speech,” said 17-year-old Giovanni Rivera. “They said public officials cannot force us to speak. They gave us the right not to speak.”
“I agree with Gio,” said his classmate, 18-year-old Justin Davis. “At the end of the day, someone’s vote is their opinion.”
With Massachusetts in the home stretch of the 2014 political season, educators and community organizers are trying to figure out ways to make this year’s races — and the electoral process — relevant to a generation coming of age in some Boston neighborhoods with double-digit unemployment, soaring college tuition costs, and violence-plagued streets.
There have been readings assigned on the constitutional amendments that gave women and people of color the right to vote. Classes have discussed the relevance and potential bias in voter ID laws. Young people have facilitated candidate forums.
And on Wednesday more than 300 high-schoolers packed a downtown meeting room for the Massachusetts Youth Governors Forum, hosted by the Youth Jobs Coalition.
They asked four of the five candidates for governor — Republican Charlie Baker, Democrat Martha Coakley, and independents Evan Falchuk and Jeff McCormick — about their stance on everything from investing millions in youth job programs to closing the achievement and opportunity gap to making the youth pass for the MBTA a transportation priority.
And each candidate agreed to the students’ demand that the next governor meet with the coalition once a year and create a youth adviser staff position by April 30, 2015.
“It is not easy being a young person from the state of Massachusetts, whether you’re from Brockton, Boston, Chelsea, or Worcester. This is especially true if you are, like many of us here tonight, low-income people of color,” 17-year-old Kenton Bennett Jr. told the crowd.
Jaelle Sanon, an 18-year-old senior at John D. O’Bryant High School, said, “We, the youth of Massachusetts, want to be part of the solution to make the state liveable for all regardless of economic, racial or age status.”
Students in Patrick Morse’s debate class at East Boston High School said their political apathy turned into interest after being given responsibility for moderating a debate between state Representative Carlo Basile and his opponent, Celeste Ribeiro Myers.
“Voting has become so much more important to me . . . really because of this,” said senior Louis Areniello just before last week’s debate, which was cosponsored by the voter-education program Commonwealth Lobby. “My mother would have talked to me about it. Why it’s important. The whole nine yards.”
His classmates said researching the candidates’ positions on everything from the four questions on the Nov. 4 ballot to undocumented immigrants receiving in-state tuition to the response to a recent rash of fires in East Boston made them more conscious of voting’s importance.
“We’re kind of the key because at the end of the day, it’s our age group that will be affected,” said Kevin Sinatra, who turns 18 about two weeks after Election Day. “It’s our community, and it’s in our hands.”
Still, candidates face an uphill climb reaching out to young voters. A poll released Wednesday by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that many young people are unlikely to vote in Tuesday’s elections. Only 26 percent of the 2,029 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed across the country said they “definitely” planned to participate.
Those who said they probably or definitely will not be voting, or gave it a 50/50 chance, offered a variety of reasons — everything from not knowing enough about the candidates to not being a citizen to thinking their vote does not count.
The survey found a deep mistrust of politicians and the political system. Only 10 percent of respondents said they believe Congress represents their constituents, and 56 percent said “all of them” — Democrats, Republicans, and the president — are most to blame for the political gridlock in Washington, D.C.
Many of Haydock’s students at the Burke, including those who are registered to vote, expressed a similar cynicism in the political system that belied their youth.
Dacia Thompson, a senior, registered to vote at the registry with her mother in Chinatown. But that doesn’t mean the 18-year-old is necessarily planning on heading to the polls Tuesday. The candidates aren’t talking enough about what they’ll do help her Dorchester neighborhood, she said.
“They’re talking about somewhere else, like Saugus,” she said. “They’re talking about like a fund-raiser or something. It’s like, OK, what does that have to do with us? That’s not helping anybody in our community. We’re in the Boston community.”
Fellow student Dayshara Robinson went a step farther: She said it’s like politicians have drawn a red circle around their neighborhoods, she said, referring to red-lining, the practice of denying or limiting financial services to neighborhoods because residents are poor or people of color.
“Once you’re inside that red circle, the things on the outside do not apply to you because you are labeled as less than,” she said.
“Like she said, it’s like a red circle and we’re in the middle of it, and it’s like nobody wants to fix these troubled problems,” added 18-year-old Yazmine Garay. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll handle those problems. We’ll do this. We’ll do that.’ But nobody handles it. Nobody tries.”
If the candidates on the ballot started talking about helping their community in meaningful ways, these young women said, they would tune in and show up. Although, Robinson did concede that she probably would be at her polling precinct come Tuesday.
“My mom is going to be like ‘You need to go up there,’ ” she said with a deep eye roll. “She’s just going to harass me.”
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