Young People Connect Challenges Faced in Chicago Neighborhoods to Democracy Reforms

June 30, 2016

Community organizing groups and progressive allies – including many Voqal Fund grantees – joined forces to create an unprecedented multi-racial, multi-generational effort aimed at furthering progressive causes in the 2016 Chicago primary.

Progressive groups of all types took electoral action including Chicago Votes Action Fund, United Working Families, BYP100,, MoveOn, Democracy for America and The Bus Federation.

In the wake of these progressive wins, we asked The Bus Federation’s Matt Singer about what made it possible. Singer credits three key elements that led to the success on election day:

  1. Reforms that eased access to the ballot, specifically same day voter registration
  2. A concerted push to mobilize young people to the polls
  3. An electoral environment where campaigns and organizations talked about the issues that matter to young people

Youth turnout in Illinois’ primary was up big from 2008 and official turnout data from Cook County showed significant young voter turnout, at least during early voting. That high turnout was partially driven by same day voter registration.

Registration and Mobilization
In the last few years, Chicago Votes alone has registered over 20,000 young Chicagoans to vote and directly escorted thousands of young voters from high schools to early vote sites through parades to the polls. These efforts resulted in Chicago Votes being profiled by award winning journalist Maria Hinojosa.

In addition to Chicago Votes, a variety of organizations from National People’s Action to Mikva Challenge to student organizations, labor unions, and community organizations have been registering, educating, and mobilizing young voters.

Issues That Matter
Singer states that the recent successes wouldn’t have happened without an electoral environment where candidates and campaigns actually addressed important issues. Organizations like BYP 100, We Charge Genocide, Assata’s Daughters, and FLY (plus others) created an environment where candidates needed to talk about police violence, the criminalization of youth and criminal justice reform.

That environment means that young voters are hearing issues that actually matter to them, which makes a difference when it comes time to head to the polls.

Lessons We Can Learn
According to Singer, there’s a lot to be learned from what happened in Chicago, but here are his main takeaways:

  • The most successful mobilization efforts include reform, engagement and message – you need all three.
  • Healthy democracies have healthy ecosystems with lots of leaders and approaches to the work.
  • Build for the long term – the reforms that made this possible were passed years ago, and the organizations and leaders involved in these efforts have been building for years. When organizations start building, they can’t let off the momentum because of changes in the national political map.

It is clear progressive groups are getting much better at mobilizing young voters by connecting the issues that affect them daily to concrete policy and democracy reforms. As a strong supporter of an engaged, empowered population, Voqal looks forward to seeing how these organizations can continue to succeed in the November election and beyond.