Travis Early College High School senior Brenda Gomez exits the William R. Sinkin Eco Centro after voting for the first time.
Travis Early College High School senior Brenda Gomez exits the William R. Sinkin Eco Centro after voting for the first time. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

High school senior Brenda Gomez and her siblings are among the first in their family to cast ballots. Her older brother voted before her, and her older sister is waiting until Election Day, but Brenda made her inaugural trip to the polls alongside teacher Frances Santos on the 10th day of early voting.

On Wednesday, Santos escorted Gomez from Travis Early College High School across Main Avenue toward the San Antonio College Eco Centro, where Gomez waited in line to cast her first-ever ballot. The entire trip took about 25 minutes.

“Where’s the sticker? Where’s the sticker?” Santos asked as soon as Gomez emerged from the voting center. As Gomez fumbled with her “I Voted” badge, Santos snapped photos and continued her congratulations.

“It was my honor to walk you over to your first voting experience,” Santos said.

Travis Early College High School senior Brenda Gomez puts her "I Voted" sticker on the back of her phone after voting for the first time.
Travis Early College High School senior Brenda Gomez puts her “I Voted” sticker on the back of her phone after voting for the first time. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

At 18, Gomez is among the nation’s youngest voters. Historically, turnout in this age group has been low – in the November 2016 election, voters ages 18 to 24 comprised the smallest group of registered voters in Texas and had the lowest voting rate.

Some election observers have speculated this trend won’t continue during this election. A Harvard Institute of Politics poll released in mid-October indicates that young Americans are significantly more likely to vote in these midterm elections than they were in 2010 and 2014.

The liberal group Blue Wave San Antonio has shown a similar trend locally through a report updated daily based on voter rolls and votes cast. The report infers participation based on primary history, sex, race, and age.

Bexar County doesn’t track these factors and can’t validate the report, but the report can be used as an estimate of voter turnout trends. In the report updated Wednesday, Blue Wave San Antonio estimates that voters ages 18 to 29 this year doubled their share of the vote from the 2014 midterm elections.

According to the report, in the first nine days of early voting in the 2014 midterms, 18 year-old voters in Bexar County had 3.4 percent turnout among registered voters of the same age. In 2018, this turnout increased to 17.3 percent.

While a small portion of high school students are old enough to vote, local teachers are taking it upon themselves to engage students in the process and prove that their votes count.

Civics inside the classroom

Ask most educators and they’ll tell you that there isn’t enough time in the day to get to everything they want to teach. This is especially true in Matthew Chesnut’s government class at Kennedy High School.

Chesnut has been teaching at Kennedy for the better part of a decade and cites civic engagement as the reason he wanted to get into teaching.

Students tend to rely on social media for their information, Chesnut said, and might lack perspective if they selectively follow certain accounts.

Chesnut uses what he calls warmups and closing time to address current issues. Last week, he pushed his regular plans aside to address the shootings in Pittsburgh and Kentucky and used student questions and discussion to guide the lessons.

Elsewhere, teachers adapt similarly, fitting in civic education where they can, often outside the classroom. At Barkley-Ruiz Elementary School in the San Antonio Independent School District, students are too young to understand the complexities of elections and politics. But librarian Analisa Spicer holds mock elections to show young students the process of voting and the concept of choice affecting an outcome.

Spicer hopes this will not only help demystify the voting process for students but also encourage them to go home and tell their families about it, motivating them to vote as well.

At Alamo Heights High School, social studies teacher Melissa Meza has helped facilitate similar mock elections. During the 2016 presidential election, students held debates and participated in clubs that supported opposing viewpoints.

IDEA Carver teacher Brittany Hibbert said allowing students to fumble around while forming opinions and teaching them to disagree with classmates in a well-mannered way is crucial.

“They have to be able to see themselves as participants of history,” Hibbert said.

IDEA Carver teacher Brittany Hibbert (left) accompanies IDEA Carver senior Noah Martinez, 19, as he votes for the first time at the Claude Black Community Center polling site. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Top concerns for young voters

As students forge their own opinions about candidates and election issues, certain concerns rise to the top. The Education Week Research Center Youth Politics national survey found most young voters rank the high cost of living, economy, taxes, disparities between rich and poor, and a lack of money as their biggest economic priorities.

Most of the San Antonio students interviewed for this article mentioned the cost of higher education, immigration, and school shootings as their top concerns. The focus tended to be colored by a student’s individual circumstances and surroundings.

Emily Garcia, who will celebrate her 18th birthday just a day before Nov. 6, attends Young Women’s Leadership Academy. Garcia was the first in her family to vote and knows many people who aren’t able to because of citizenship status.

“I’m mainly interested in women’s rights and also on DACA status for students,” Garcia said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields certain undocumented immigrants from deportation.

(From left) Janelle Arnold, 18, Susan Martinez, 18, and Emily Garcia, 17, are all voting for the first time in this election.
(From left) Janelle Arnold, 18; Susan Martinez, 18; and Emily Garcia, 17, are all voting for the first time in this election. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Brian Yancelson, 18, is the president of a club for young Democrats at Alamo Heights High School and said he has seen his parents grapple with health care decisions, so that issue is of particular interest.

“I know that’s been highly discussed in the past couple years, and I’ve seen firsthand how my parents have tried to deal with what health care [insurance] they are on,” Yancelson said. “I hear their conversations and realize it is not just in the news, it is affecting real people.”

One of Yancelson’s classmates, 18-year-old Pierson Ray, grew up about 20 miles from the border and said immigration issues are his emphasis.

Local issues were largely absent from many young voters’ list of priorities. The big issue on San Antonians’ ballots is a slate of proposed charter amendments that if approved could significantly change the way the city operates.

Most students interviewed for this article did not know the content of the ballot propositions, didn’t understand the amendments after reading the actual language, and were not enthusiastic about the issues.

YWLA student Janelle Arnold was one of the few familiar with the topic and said she first read about the ballot propositions with her grandfather, who told her how important they were for the city’s future.

“After I researched them, I was amazed about proposal B and what that would mean for our city manager,” said Arnold, referring to the ballot measure that would limit the pay and tenure of future city managers.

IDEA Carver senior Noah Martinez, 19, who was greeted with screams of “Vote no!” and “Vote yes!” as he approached the doors at the Claude Black Community Center polling site, said he thinks he might do more research before his next vote.

IDEA Carver senior Noah Martinez, 19, leaves the Claude Black Community Center polling site after voting for the first time. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Martinez cares about taxation and tried to use that viewpoint to make a decision on the local propositions but wasn’t entirely clear on the language. That won’t stop him from voting in the next election, though.

“I’m going to go tell [my classmates] to vote,” he told a teacher who asked him what he thought of casting a ballot.

That’s the whole point for Chesnut. Young voters are often deterred by not having enough information or not feeling like they have the power to effect change.

“I tell them, you’re dealing with the same level of information most other voters are dealing with, and that’s not stopping them from voting,” the Kennedy teacher said. “So if you’ve got a preference, go exercise it.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.