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Student Voters In Washington State


This week, Senator Bernie Sanders acknowledged something that could have a big impact on his presidential campaign - that turnout among young people, which he views as crucial to his success, has not been as high as he'd hoped so far.

We came here to Washington state this week just ahead of the primary here on Tuesday specifically to speak with young voters about their choices this election year. We're also in the state's third congressional district - a so-called swing district that's flipped between Democrats and Republicans a few times in past years and where turnout can make a big difference.

One of our first stops here in Vancouver was a social event for young professionals and business owners. It was a monthly meetup of EPICC, or Emerging Professionals, in Clark County. Tara Gell sponsored this month's event. She's 33 years old, and she owns a business called The Rage Cage.

TARA GELL: It's a smash room where you get to come, and you smash them - glass, toilets, windows, TVs. So you come in, you get suited up, and then you just get to go to town - let it out.

MARTIN: Washington state makes it very easy for people to vote by mail, so I ask Tara who she's supporting in the state's upcoming presidential primary.

So who did you pick?

GELL: I can't tell you that.

MARTIN: You can't tell me? Why is that?

GELL: I don't know if it's just people are so afraid of that they - many people nowadays...


GELL: Or if it's just, like, if they just don't want the confrontation of it...


GELL: Because so many opinions, there can be, like, thrown back at you...

MARTIN: Right.

GELL: ...When you're not even wanting to.

MARTIN: Right.

GELL: You know, like, if me and you - we could get along just perfectly right now. But then the second we have a difference in politics, it could be a different story.

MARTIN: Was it that - was it always that way? Or has it just been that way recently?

GELL: I think it's totally that way recently.

MARTIN: Really?

GELL: Hundred percent, yes.

MARTIN: Really? When did you start to notice this?

GELL: Honestly, it's when Donald Trump had entered in.

MARTIN: Others at the young professionals event echoed Tara's views. They said they worried about offending potential clients and business partners on either side, so they found it prudent to avoid talking politics whenever possible.

Still, we found other young people here in Clark County who were very outspoken about their political views. Roxie Doty is a 27-year-old public affairs student at the Washington State University campus here in Vancouver. She supports Bernie Sanders, and a big reason for her is his support for "Medicare for All." Roxie says she's seen firsthand how rising health care costs can devastate families.

ROXIE DOTY: My sister - she has really good health insurance. She works for a really decent tax office. And she ended up getting a kidney stone. And she went to the ER because she had no idea what it was. And basically, they put her in a room for about two to three hours, and they gave her a Tylenol and told her what it was and sent her home. A week later, we get a bill for $15,000.

MARTIN: Fifteen thousand dollars.

DOTY: Luckily, her insurance covered about 10 grand. This is a woman with good insurance. And we still...

MARTIN: She still wound up paying $5,000 for a kidney stone.

DOTY: Yeah, for two hours in the emergency room.


DOTY: It's absolutely ridiculous. And getting a little personal here, two years ago, my father passed away. But he had...

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

DOTY: It happens. He had lung problems. It - the process took about six months. And in these six months, we racked up $600,000 in medical bills. It took my dad $600,000 to die. We don't have that (laughter). I don't know anyone who has that. It's one of those things - like, if he didn't have Medicare, I mean, literally, we, the family, would be stuck with that money, and we would be financially ruined.

And so we were lucky that we didn't have to pay that. We don't - and the only out-of-pocket medical cost was - I think it was 12 grand. But still, who has 12 grand to pay for someone to die?

MARTIN: Roxie made it clear she is determined to vote this year, but she knows that many young people like her choose not to. And I asked her why she thinks that is.

DOTY: Part of me wants to say apathy. They just don't care. The other part of me wants to say it's lack of knowledge of how much you can change these rules and that these rules affect you. I almost feel like it's a lack of education of this system because I wasn't educated in this system. I didn't know how it worked.

But now that I do, I know my avenues of - if I want change, I know who to go talk to. I know what to do, how to do it. Anyone graduating high school or anyone not in a public affairs program - do they know these avenues? Unless they self-start and learn it themselves, do they know these avenues?

MARTIN: Well, some people would have the idea if you're not willing to self-start, if you're not willing to learn how - the process, then you shouldn't vote anyway because you're not really invested in it. There are those people who have that point of view.

DOTY: There are definitely those people. And then there's also those people that do not have the time because they are working three jobs. And there's also those people who just don't have the knowledge. Even if they did have the time, they don't know what they're looking at.

MARTIN: Do you feel overall optimistic or pessimistic about it? When you think about the future for yourself, and you think about the future of the country, how do you feel? Do you feel overall optimistic or pessimistic?

DOTY: I don't know if optimistic or pessimistic, but I do have a lot of anxiety about the future. I'm not willing to say, oh, it's going to be terrible, or, oh, it's going to be great. I just have an anxiety of I don't know which way it's going to go. And I think that is what's causing the anxiety. It's because I just don't know where this is going to go.

MARTIN: That was Roxie Doty, a senior studying public affairs at Washington State University Vancouver. Roxie also made it clear that another key motivation for her, like other progressives elsewhere in the country, is to see Donald Trump out of office, saying his values do not align with her own. But another student we met on campus was 22-year-old Austin Silbernagel. He says he voted for Trump in 2016 and may do so again this year even if he agrees with some of the president's detractors when it comes to his demeanor in office.

AUSTIN SILBERNAGEL: I'd say he's definitely the most - least presidential president we've ever had as far as demeanor. I've heard it said he gets an A minus for policy and D for demeanor. And I definitely agree with the D for demeanor (laughter).

MARTIN: But what about for policy?

SILBERNAGEL: Fiscal policy is a little more economic liberal than I would like. But I don't follow it too closely, but I can't ignore the facts that the economy's doing well - except for the past - you know, past month of coronavirus affecting it. But up until that point, our economy was doing very well.

MARTIN: Austin says he tends to vote a straight Republican ticket because he identifies with the GOP on social issues.

SILBERNAGEL: Family values - I'm Christian, so anybody who holds Judeo-Christian worldview, that I'm - I will support that candidate.

MARTIN: But there are lots of different - I mean, I guess what I'm saying is...


MARTIN: There are lots of different ways to be a Christian in the world.


MARTIN: And you have your - so what is your particular point of view on this?

SILBERNAGEL: Yeah. So pro-life absolutely, pro-Second Amendment, obviously. Those are my two.

MARTIN: Not obviously - why? Why? What does that have to do with being a Christian?

SILBERNAGEL: Well, I think the right to life is the first right among all rights. And so being able to protect that right inside and outside the womb, outside the womb with the right to hold and bear arms is to protect ourselves from an overbearing state and from a tyrannical government if it ever gets to that point. And I think that's what the founders intended for a Second Amendment.

As far as the right to life, again, the right to life is sacred. It's the first right among all our rights. It's where everything else comes from. And so protecting the right of the unborn is definitely essential for me.

MARTIN: So can I ask you about this? And I want you to understand that I respect you, and I respect your views. I am curious if it bothers you that so many people find President Trump so hurtful. Does it bother you that he makes fun of people, that he calls them names, berates people in ways that - I'm not telling you anything you don't already know...


MARTIN: ...I hope. The fact that so many people find the country a coarser place because of the way he chooses to conduct himself. Does that bother you at all?

SILBERNAGEL: It - yes and no. I think yes because as a president, you should be more presidential in behavior. But I do think people have the right to say whatever they'd like to say whether that - if that even looks like it's - it could be hurtful, then you still should have the right to say it. Now, that - just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do something. That's my response to that.

And as far as bothering - does it bother me that other people feel hurt? Slightly yes, and only because I would much rather see people come together in unity and not be as torn and divided over rhetoric.

MARTIN: You do plan to vote for him again.


MARTIN: You're not sure?

SILBERNAGEL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Really?


MARTIN: You are actually open to other...

SILBERNAGEL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Candidates?

SILBERNAGEL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Tell me about that.

SILBERNAGEL: You know, if there is another Republican candidate that comes along that is ardently supportive of pro-life and Second Amendment rights, then absolutely. But I just can't vote for any of the current Democratic candidates because they're not as socially conservative as I am. And I - and social conservatism is the forefront of my political efforts.

MARTIN: That was Austin Silbernagel, a junior studying public affairs at Washington State University here in Vancouver. He and many other students we met this week in Washington's 3rd congressional district say they are certain to vote this presidential election year.

And that's also the case for 18-year-old Lindsey Luis, a first-year student at WSU Vancouver who is very politically active. Last year, she ran for a seat on her local school board because she wanted more representation for the Latino community here. She didn't win that one, but she did win her election for youth president for the League of United Latin American Citizens, LULAC, a Latino advocacy group. And she's also the daughter of undocumented immigrants.

We caught up with Lindsey Luis in the parking lot of a local coffee shop not far from where she works. It was a rainy day, so we took shelter in our rental car.

LINDSEY LUIS: Love this car. It's so good (laughter).


I asked her what she's doing to get other young people to vote this year.

LUIS: Yesterday, I was at the supermarket. And I had a girl who actually - we go to school together, but I didn't really know her off the top of my head. And she walks up to me. She's, like, hey. She's, like, how do I vote?

It was interesting to see how I didn't know her necessarily, but she knew me, and she was, like, hey, I wanted to reach out, and I have you on Snapchat. But I saw you right now, and I just wanted to go up to you and just ask. And I think that I really created this platform for people to feel welcomed enough to come into the space and really ask the question.

MARTIN: Did you tell her? Hopefully, you told her.

LUIS: I did, yes.


LUIS: Yeah. I set her up on the website, you know, and I...

MARTIN: (Laughter) You set her up.

LUIS: I would contact her just to make sure that she actually got her ballot and...

MARTIN: Is it easy to register here?

LUIS: It is pretty easy, yes.

MARTIN: But despite that, Lindsey says many of her peers still don't vote because they don't feel like politics is about them.

LUIS: We don't see it necessarily impacting us as much, and so a lot of the conversations that go on with politicians is that they're the youth voice, and really, that young person's perspective is left out of it, whether that is on purpose or not on purpose.

But really, young people see candidates speaking, and they don't see themselves in those sentences. And so they're, like, well, you know, how am I going to put this time aside, or how am I going to, you know, be aware of the things that are constantly going on for someone that I, you know, don't see speaking on my behalf? And so that's something that I see a lot when it comes to just youth not being as active us as we'd like them to.

MARTIN: What would you say more broadly are some of the issues that younger voters care about and talk about or potential voters?

LUIS: So a lot of students that I've just seen around school and everything - a lot of students are worried about the environment - you know, about how the next 10 years is going to look like or what even, you know, our climate is going to be next. They're seeing all these environmental disasters, and so they're thinking, you know, what is going to happen if this just keeps getting worse? So where's our future in that?

But also, just aside from environment, you know, a lot of students care about DACA, what's going on with that. They care about their legal status. You know, what are the protections for them? They're trying to go to school. You know, how are they going to afford school? And they're just really thinking about their families, too, right? You know, a lot of students here have mixed status homes, and so they constant fear for what's going to happen to their parents...

MARTIN: What does that mean, for people who aren't familiar with that term? What is a mixed-status family...

LUIS: Mixed-status homes...

MARTIN: ...For people who don't know that - what that means?

LUIS: So, for example, like, my parents are undocumented. But I was born here and am a citizen, and so that's a mixed-status home. Or it could be vice-versa, right? The parents could have citizenship, but the son, daughter was born in another country and then brought over here, and so they're not necessarily citizens. But, you know...

MARTIN: And a lot of people are like that, and it's worrying. It's worrying.

LUIS: It is.

MARTIN: Right.

LUIS: It is, definitely - because you're either worrying about your wife, or you're worrying about your mom, or you're worrying about your dad or your sibling or...

MARTIN: Well, so what do you say to people who say, well, why should I vote? It doesn't matter.

LUIS: (Laughter) Well, I would say if a million people say that, then you're able to actually sway that election the other way. And so a lot of things that I've heard is that people who don't vote are actually the people who are making the elections - election results.

And so it is an interesting concept when just one person can say it. But when you think about it as a whole community that is thousands and thousands of people thinking the same thing and not getting out there and just voicing whatever it may be, voting for whoever they may want, but at least just putting in their input.

MARTIN: That was Lindsey Luis, an 18-year-old activist who studies political science at Washington State University here in Vancouver. Later in the program, we'll hear from Carolyn Long, a Democrat who's trying to flip this district from red to blue this year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.