Rock the vote they can, cast it they can’t

Teen campaign volunteers work to influence the democratic process

Hank Searfus, 16, is careful to make a positive impression during neighborhood canvassing on behalf of Organizing for America-Colorado. “You’re representing something larger than yourself,” he said. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Hank Searfus, 16, is careful to make a positive impression during neighborhood canvassing on behalf of Organizing for America-Colorado. “You’re representing something larger than yourself,” he said.

They won’t be voting Nov. 6, but it’s not because of apathy or frustration with the bitter partisanship in Washington, D.C.

It’s because they’re too young.

Age, however, has not stopped them from getting involved.

Across the country during election season, candidates for public office call upon teenagers who are invested enough in the democratic process to help with a campaign. But without the payoff of casting a ballot, why bother?

“I love this country, first of all,” said Elle Rathbun, a 16-year-old junior at Durango High School.

Katja Max, also 16, recalled the advice of a political organizer she met in 2008: “Yard signs don’t vote.”

“Because I can’t vote, it’s important to make my voice heard and to get others to do the same,” she said.

Young people are frequently caricatured as being indifferent about politics. Max acknowledged that, in some cases, the stereotype contains some truth.

“I hear it all the time: ‘I hate elections. They don’t matter. Who cares?’” she said, imitating her peers.

But she doesn’t see it that way: “By getting involved, you can take things into your own hands instead of letting them happen to you.”

Although both major parties said they value teen volunteers for bringing fresh, youthful enthusiasm to the table, efforts to reach a local Republican volunteer for this story were unsuccessful. The nearest Mitt Romney field office is in Grand Junction, and Rep. Scott Tipton’s campaign manager, Michael Fortney, said he didn’t have anyone on staff who “fit that bill.” Representatives from the La Plata County Republican office, including chairwoman Velbeth Jones and second vice-chairman Bob Marcus, said they were not aware of any underage campaign volunteers with the local GOP candidates for county commissioner or the Colorado Legislature.

Putting in the hours

Hank Searfus, 16, is an intern with Organizing for America-Colorado, a grass-roots network of pro-Obama activists funded by the Democratic National Committee. The DHS junior’s admiration for the president persuaded at least four classmates – including Rathbun and Max – to volunteer as well.

“It started last summer. I wanted to use my (vacation) time wisely,” Searfus said.

From May to August, his internship essentially was a full-time job. Once fall classes started, the hours tapered off. Searfus also attends classes at Fort Lewis College, but he still tries to contribute every afternoon.

Organizing for America doesn’t stipulate a minimum commitment from its volunteers, but it does encourage at least two hours a week, Rathbun said. She has chipped in 30 hours since September.

“I usually do more (than two). If I slip one week, I try to make it up the next,” she said.

The teens are put to work making phone calls to potential supporters and canvassing neighborhoods to discuss policy and register voters.

“I have gone door-to-door to register new people or reactivate the ones who haven’t voted in a while. We also do persuasion knocks to give people literature from the campaign and tell them what the president’s message is,” Rathbun said.

Not all residents are receptive. Some are jaded about the system or are unwilling to divulge their political allegiance to strangers. Others don’t take them seriously. A few hide inside despite being obviously home. Regardless, the volunteers are trained to be respectful and listen patiently – “we don’t want to be abrasive or confrontational,” Max said.

“Some people view us as ‘just kids.’ They’ll ask questions to trip us up. A lot of them are pleasantly surprised to discover we do know something,” she said.

In general, the majority of listeners are willing to engage in conversation.

“They thank us for being involved and, even if they disagree, respect that we set aside time for something we are passionate about,” Max said.

Searfus agreed. He thinks the lack of big-market television advertising helps Southwest Colorado residents maintain an independent streak.

“Voters here tend to be more flexible. They evaluate the issues, consider the facts and make a decision, no matter which party they are traditionally connected with. It’s refreshing,” he said.

A future in politics – or not

Despite their early activism, these volunteers have other career ideas.

Rathbun is thinking of studying neuroscience and possibly journalism – she is news editor for DHS’ student newspaper, El Diablo.

She draws inspiration from Obama’s rise to prominence from a modest background.

“I don’t come from a wealthy family, but I know I want to go to college. I want to be successful,” she said, noting that Obama went on to attend Columbia and Harvard universities.

Max, likewise, has ambitious academic dreams. She wants to major in engineering and later pursue a graduate degree in business.

Searfus said he surprises acquaintances when he tells them his sights are set on math, science and computers.

Even if they don’t make politics a profession, the teens interviewed want to remain active beyond the next election, when they will be eligible to vote.

“I’ll still be involved in representation and getting peoples’ voices heard,” Max said. “These beliefs are central to my life. I want to make sure that youth, in particular, have a say.”

lgroskopf@durangoherald.com

When he isnít visiting voters door-to-door, Hank Searfus updates registration information in a database, trains other volunteers and helps keep the office running smoothly. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

When he isnít visiting voters door-to-door, Hank Searfus updates registration information in a database, trains other volunteers and helps keep the office running smoothly.

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story