When West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner announced last month that 22,518 high school seniors in the state had registered to vote in the past 18 months, it was a terrific sign that young people are feeling politically engaged.
It also hinted at the very real possibility that this youngest voting demographic may influence races in the November midterm elections.
In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the remarkable campaign of student activism that followed it, the national narrative was that high school students were part of a uniform, liberal Generation Z wave committed to tightening gun control laws, abruptly reversing the gun rights culture that marks American generations before them.
But teenage voters in Appalachia remain a largely unknown quantity. High school students here are rarely sought out by political pollsters, and little attention has been paid to their positions beyond high profile media coverage of gun violence and opioids.
While we can’t do much about politicians’ apparent disinterest in how young people feel about the big issues of the day, we can help news organizations in this region better understand– and report on– the viewpoints of these young citizens.
So we asked them.
In partnership with Inspire USA, and passionate and committed civics teachers across West Virginia, we were able to ask approximately 1,100 students from more than 20 schools how they feel about the pressing issues of today, including immigration, the environment, abortions, gun control, health care and LGBTQ rights.
In order to engage kids in a space where they were comfortable, we used a system called GroundSource that allowed us to conduct the polling via text message. Each question took the student only a few seconds to complete.
What we learned is that the prevailing wisdom that young Americans are socially liberal lefties that will undoubtedly vote Democrat does not accurately reflect the positions of students in West Virginia.
Nor are they Trump Country stereotypes.
If their ideologies hold true into the future, this generation of young voters may be bad news for politicians unwilling to step outside strict partisan lines, as they seem to feel very comfortable embracing both traditionally liberal and traditionally conservative positions, depending on the issue.
On guns, for example, a narrow majority of respondents supported stricter gun controls, but the polling results certainly did not describe a homogenous block.
Almost two-thirds of respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the government should more strictly regulate industry and businesses in order to protect the environment.
A similar percentage supported providing healthcare to all U.S. citizens, regardless of their ability to pay.
Diving deeper into the responses of individual students, we saw a number that took traditionally conservative positions (pro-life, anti-immigration, for example), but that were supportive of marriage equality.
While a pro-gun streak may be no surprise coming from the sons and daughters of central Appalachia, the entirety of the responses to the poll do not fit conveniently into the pigeonhole that has been created for these young people as residents of Trump Country.
One of the reasons we conducted this poll was to demonstrate to other media organizations that it can be done, easily and cheaply.
For any reporter or editor with existing relationships at their local schools, setting up a GroundSource poll like this would take just a few hours and a few hundred dollars. If you really are interested in what young people in your community think, there is a fast and convenient way to ask them.
Time, money and effort are no longer excuses for not doing a better job of engaging with young people in the communities you cover. Only by continuing to seek the opinions and viewpoints of young people, and including their voices in our reporting, will we improve the quality of our analysis and engage some of these young people as consumers and broadcasters of our work.
There will be hurdles though. During this project I learned that, unfortunately, there were still leaders in our education and political systems that were either not interested in students being able to engage in key social and political debates, or that were directly opposed to it.
The office of one elected official, whose responsibilities include civic engagement and encouraging participation in elections, told me that they would not support our polling project if we were “going to ask the students about issues.”
So divisive and uncivil has political conversation become today that some feel the best response is to protect young people from it with silence.
Where I did see energetic support for kids to tackle these debates head on was in the classroom itself – from the teachers. The educators I met were passionate supporters of involving their kids in sometimes-uncomfortable political conversations and forcing them to acknowledge the differing opinions of other young Americans.
It was certainly labor-intensive, but it was only by reaching out to teachers directly – rather than principals or state or district education officials – that I was able to secure the involvement of so many senior classes across the state.
Now that we have the data in hand, our hope is that these insights will help inform and improve reporting about young people in Appalachia, wherever that reporting is being done.
In the days ahead we’ll be sharing the results with any and all media organizations that are interested in taking our results and doing reporting of their own.
If that describes you, get in touch with me at [email protected].