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‘Give kids the opportunity to show up’ — Local students turning 18 after general election day plan to vote in upcoming runoff
Toryn Tamborello takes a photo with her dad just after voting for her first time in Georgia’s runoff election. — Photo courtesy of the Tamborello family.

Toryn Tamborello piled into the car with her family on Monday, Dec. 21, fighting the chilly morning to head out to an early polling location just off Canton Highway and vote for her first time.

The Alliance Academy student celebrated her 18th birthday on Dec. 11, and she was excited to take part in the election. She and parents left the polls after only five minutes and marked the milestone by taking some family photos of all of them wearing “I am a Georgia voter” stickers.

“You talk all the time about how you want people to vote and how important voting is, and you learn in your classes how essential it is to vote,” Tamborello said. “And then being able to actually play it out is really cool.”

Tamborello is one of thousands of young citizens in Georgia who has or will turn 18 in the time between the general election on Nov. 3 and the state’s runoff election for two members of the U.S. Senate on Jan. 5.

Political organizations, activists, students and even candidates have focused more of their attention on younger voters, especially going into Georgia’s runoff election, to try to keep up and even supersede the historic voter turnout the nation and state saw during the general election last month.

More of Georgia’s young voters turned out at the November election than in past years with about 20% of voters 18-29 taking part — one of the highest turnouts of young voters in the nation, according to the Center of Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Just before the general election on Nov. 1, the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office also released data on the number of active voters within each county in the state. Those aged 18-39 in Forsyth County make up nearly 34% of the county’s active voters.

Now, with thousands more joining the count before Georgia’s runoff, activists around the nation are pointing out that the younger vote could have an even bigger impact on election results.


Building a foundation

Many students in Forsyth County are joining in on encouraging each other and other young adults to get out and vote, no matter who they plan to vote for.

Caroline Andrews, a senior at West Forsyth High School who turned 18 on Nov. 22, said she has been thinking about politics since she was a little girl. Of course, she didn’t quite understand it then, but she remembers moments when her dad sat in their home watching presidential debates, cheering on his favorite candidate.

Reflecting on it now, she is proud and excited to be able to vote for the first time in the state runoff in January, and she believes it’s important for other young voters to take part, too.

“I think it’s important to understand that even the policies of today are going to impact how our nation works long term and what kind of country we have [when we’re older],” Andrews said.

Rebekah Yohler, a senior at Alliance Academy, agreed with this sentiment, saying that they need to begin building a foundation when they are younger so that they can build up to what they want the country to look like when they are older.


‘A lot of disappointment’

Yohler just turned 18 on Dec. 5 and also plans to vote in the runoff election. She admitted that she never had any real interest in politics until this year, and knowing that she would be turning 18 soon, she wanted to be better informed before potentially voting. But what first drew her interest was seeing others in the country going through hardships this year.

The pandemic has impacted everyone in different ways, whether they are struggling to keep their business open or dealing with added anxieties while trying to work from home, but Tamborello said kids and young adults are missing out on opportunities and rites of passage that are more unique to them.

“I think kids are starting to realize that they’re missing out, but so is the kid next door and so is their friend and so is their neighbor,” Tamborello said. “Everybody is on the same playing field of — we're getting a lot of disappointment. And this [election] is something that we can rally behind. And this is something we can get excited about.”

Both Tamborello and Yohler said the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests earlier this year, notably after George Floyd’s death in May, also empowered them and many of their peers to learn more and pay closer attention to systems within the government.

Yohler attended the protest that a local Facebook group, Forsyth County United, held in downtown Cumming over the summer, which featured Black voices within the community. She described the experience as “eye-opening.”

“I didn’t even know what was going on in Forsyth County, and it just made me kind of angry [and feel like I] need to do something,” Yohler said. “I didn’t want to sit back and let all of this happen. It just kind of opened my eyes up to what my responsibility and duty was to.”

Tamborello believes that her peers are taking more notice of issues facing the nation at the moment as this year has impacted so many of their own family members and friends. She said it has made them realize what change they want to see in the nation and in their communities.

One of the largest issues that Andrews wants to tackle with her peers is the lack of civil discourse in the area and across the nation that she said she started to notice during the 2016 election when she was only 14.

Tamborello and Yohler also said they would like to see the younger generation represented in government. Currently, the average age of the members in the House of Representatives is nearly 58 years, and the average age in the U.S. Senate is nearly 63, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“As soon as we start electing people who will represent us and represent our views, that’s when we’ll have more of a voice,” Tamborello said. “The only way to do that is by voting and by showing up.”


Motivating a new generation of voters

On Election Day in November, Tamborello remembered sitting in front of the television all day, talking with friends as results rolled in. Throughout that week, her teachers had conversations with the class about the results at the moment and where the election could go from there, and Tamborello remembered being surprised by how many students were interested and involved in the conversation.

This year more than any other year, she noticed so many more adults encouraging young students to vote, and she believes it helped to peak more students’ interest.

“You felt like your opinions mattered, and you felt like [your] vote matters because these teachers say it does,” Tamborello said. “The more teachers you have influencing you and saying, ‘Hey, we don’t care who you vote for, just vote.’ I think that’s really important. I think there’s been a really great campaign at least this year to get kids my age out and voting, and hopefully that will continue and it will still be a priority as the candidates change.”

Tamborello and Yohler agreed that social media has also been an incredible motivator and resource for their generation ahead of the election, especially Instagram.

In just one app on their phone, they can find information directly from the candidates, learn more about different political groups and activists and find more information about current issues such as the pandemic that Instagram makes sure to reiterate with a link to the CDC’s website.

Even as a user first opens the app, a question pops up on the screen — “Are you registered to vote yet?” And it contains a link that allows the user to register then and there on their phone.

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“I think the more resources that kids are given and the more opportunities to show up and the more motivation they’re given to show up, the more they’re going to show up,” Tamborello said. “And this year, we’ve had the motivation to show up, the opportunities and the resources.”

Tamborello said she is excited to see young voters continue to participate in the state’s runoff election, and to hopefully see the trend continue far into the future, giving every young adult that same satisfaction of finally voting for the first time on a chilly Monday morning.

“Adults, whether they’re parents, teachers, political candidates, need to understand that if you give kids the opportunity to show up, they will,” Tamborello said. “And if you give kids the opportunity to have their voices heard, they will speak — every single time.”