Civics education is critical to a functioning Democratic society.
When I served as the first student member on the Maine State Board of Education, it was something that I advocated for in the curriculum. Students should know how their own government works. Students should know how and why to register to vote. Students should know the fundamentals of our political system. This instills a solid foundation of recognizing your civic responsibility, not just your rights, in our country.
Pre-pandemic, one of the highlights of my legislative service has been to visit with classrooms throughout our area. Every year, I would visit with students in elementary and middle school about how a bill becomes a law. When a student connects the dots to see how they can have a real, tangible impact in their community or state, it makes it all worth it. It gives me hope for our future. This is why I published a coloring book, “The Great Whoopie Pie Debate,” illustrating the legislative process for kids and wrote a full-length children’s book which is coming out very soon to further this education statewide.
As a teenager, I was obsessed with politics, watching a combination of Meet the Press, MSNBC, and CNN on a regular basis. Hence why I worked so hard to host my own public affairs TV show, interviewing political leaders about important issues. I covered Barack Obama’s rally in Portland during his first run for president as a reporter via Thornton Academy’s school newspaper and ever since, I was hooked. I interned on his campaign as a youth organizer. Through that experience I empowered my peers to volunteer during that election cycle and registered my peers to vote.
In college, I was hired by the city of Saco as a poll worker, helping our local clerk and volunteers to safety and smoothly conduct our election. It was eye-opening to see the level of professionalism and commitment of the clerk’s office and how much work went into holding a local election.
I want to ensure there are even more opportunities to engage youth in our politics. Young people need to have a seat at the table, feel supported to make their voices heard, and be given a platform for action.
This is why I’ve founded a new nonprofit organization called the Maine Democracy Project. Our mission is to empower a new generation of voters, advocates, and leaders through civics education, voter registration, and electoral engagement efforts. This non-partisan, nonprofit organization will be a vehicle for me to continue my public service in another way, to increase political participation and government involvement among Maine students and youth.
Through social media, speaking engagements, and publications, my hope is to register more young voters ahead of November’s election and beyond. In fact, last week was National High School Voter Registration Week and it recently was National Voter Registration Day. I think every day is a perfect day to register to vote. Sixteen year olds can pre-register to vote in our state and 17 year olds can vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the general election. This provides ample opportunity to ensure the next generation has a say in how we are governed and what their futures look like.
During the 2018 midterm elections, 31 percent of 18-19 year olds voted nationwide. Of all the votes cast in 2018, 13 percent were voters aged 18 to 29, according to data from the CIRCLE. Together, Gen Z and Millennials reported casting 30.6 million votes, according to Pew Research. Gen Z accounted for around 4.5 million, or 4 percent, of all votes cast. They are projected to be more like 10 percent of eligible voters this year as more and more of them become of voting age. In the same report, Pew reported Millennials doubled their voting participation from 2014. All of this means, youth can and will have a significant impact on our elections, who we elect to represent us, and the kind of policies enacted.
If you aren’t registered to vote, you can download a voter registration card, fill it out, and bring to your local town clerk’s office. Be sure to bring a valid photo ID along with a bill that has your name and states your primary residence. While we have same-day voter registration in the state of Maine, I would encourage all to do this in advance. If you would like to be a poll worker, visit www.maineelectionworkers.org.
We’ve seen students get heavily involved with climate change issues, so a passion for service and advocacy is there in Maine’s next generation. My hope is to help channel this energy into voter engagement and action at the ballot box. I believe in our collective ability to inspire the leaders of tomorrow, to act today. Like I’ve done my entire legislative career, I want to amplify youth voices, educate students about how government works, and inspire them to harness their power for the greater good of our democracy.
Learn more about my latest initiative at www.MaineDemocracy.org.
Justin Chenette is serving his fourth term in the state legislature, currently representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton in the Senate. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, a member of the Environment and Natural Resources and Ethics Committees, and serves on the Maine Climate Council’s Coastal & Marine Working Group. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is the owner of a digital marketing firm, president of the Maine Democracy Project, vice president of Saco Main Street, and author of The Great Whoopie Pie Debate. Follow updates at justinchenette.com.