Gabriela Espinal

It's election season, and eligible voters are being encouraged to register and make their voices heard at the polls. But what about those who can’t vote? Undocumented immigrants, people in prison or on parole, and youth under the age of 18 can’t cast a ballot, but they’re still affected by election results.

Whether it’s Donald Trump’s promises to build a border wall, Bernie Sanders’ calls for tuition-free college or California Gov. Jerry Brown’s support of a sweeping prison reform initiative, those without a vote have a huge stake in this year’s election.

Luckily, voting isn’t the only way to impact an election.

We spoke to young people in California who are finding ways to participate in the democratic process, without ever marking a ballot. This is what they’re up to:

Registering new voters

City Heights is one of the more diverse neighborhoods you’ll find in San Diego. About 40% of residents there are immigrants from East Africa, Asia and Latin America—but many of them aren’t registered to vote.


That’s starting to change, thanks to students like 16-year-old Shavaye Brown, a junior at Hoover High School. When Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, a collaborative based in City Heights, gave a presentation about voter registration to students at Hoover, members of the school’s ASB, Brown included, decided they’d participate in a voter registration drive in their community.

Shavaye Brown, 16, registers immigrant voters in her neighborhood in San Diego, Calif.
Gabriela Espinal

“They showed us some [voter turnout] statistics about City Heights compared to [Kensington, a much more wealthy neighborhood] right down the street, and there was a big difference,” she said. “Not a lot of people signed up to vote [in City Heights]. That’s what made me want to [register voters].”


Speaking of the local immigrant community in particular, Brown said, “Some people don’t know about voting. They want to see a change but don’t know how [to bring it about].”

Canvassing (gathering signatures & door-knocking)

Personal, face-to-face interaction was found to be one of the most effective methods of political campaigning in a 2012 field experiment conducted at George Mason University.

Sean Lee, a 16-year-old homeschool student in San Diego, volunteers for local city council candidates as a canvasser, walking precincts and knocking on doors to speak directly with voters.

Sean Lee, 16, walks precincts and talks to potential voters in San Diego, Calif.
Gabriela Espinal

“Nothing matters like voting or getting someone elected because that's who's going to make the decisions for you,” said Lee. “People my age are going to live in this world a lot longer than older people, so we should make it as good of a world as possible.”


Going door-to-door, he suggested, can even be fun. “I enjoy that it's much more personal [than phone-banking]. When someone is in front of you they're not going to say something super mean and then close the door in your face.”

Working the polls

In 1998, California introduced the High School Student Poll Worker Program, which allows students to work the polls on election day. They can even get paid a stipend for doing it. To qualify, students need to be at least 16-years-old, a U.S. citizen, and have a GPA of at least 2.5.


Now 19, Creusarth Respicio started working the polls as a 16-year-old after calling a number on a flyer that her high school guidance counselor had circulated around campus. She loved it so much that she signed up to work the polls again this year, even though she’s now old enough to vote herself.

Creusarth (Star) Respicio, 19, has been a poll worker since she was 16.
via Star Respicio

“I think it’s important to be involved in the election. It’s a good experience for [youth] to see what goes on behind the scenes in terms of voting,” said Respicio.


The money she earned as a poll worker, said Respicio, also didn’t hurt. “At the time, I didn’t have a job yet [and] I was always volunteering. The experience was great.”

Translating election materials for family and neighbors

Non-English speakers face obvious challenges when it comes to elections, so the Registrar of Voters got together with Media Arts Center San Diego to have students produce informational videos about voting in Vietnamese, Mandarin, Spanish and Tagalog.


San Diegan, Zachary Zheng, 15, was already interested in creative writing and filmmaking, so when he was asked to help produce a video for the Mandarin-speaking community, he was all in.

Zachary Zheng, 15, helped produce informational election videos in Mandarin.
via Zachary Zheng

“It's not just [Chinese Americans] being affected,” he said. “I think it’s important for everyone to have their voice heard in society, otherwise we don't really have a democratic system.”


When asked what he would tell other youth to inspire them to get involved in the 2016 election, Zheng broke down “chaos theory” for us: “You can't predict how a system is going to be in the future, because the smallest thing can have the biggest impact. Maybe you personally can't vote, but you could say something that could cause something else and ultimately, just like dominoes, you could totally do something really important for society.”

Going to political rallies

Lauren Baker of Fresno remembers being interested in politics even as an 8-year-old, and attended political rallies as a teen. Now 26, Baker is an activist and volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Being politically active, she said, means doing much more than simply voting.

Kody Stoebig

“Votes are silent. Theoretically they are heard, but in the literal sense, your vote is a mark on a piece of paper that you will never see again,” said Baker. “If you are committed to seeing the person you want elected to office to win, you have to do more… Whether we admit it or not, we all like being a part of a community, and encouraging your friends to learn [about issues] and go to rallies is one of the best ways to accomplish real political progress.”

Joining youth advisory councils

Jeremy Miller, 23, is a community advocate in Fresno and a member of the Fresno Police Chief’s Youth Advisory Council, as well as Fresno Boys and Men of Color. He said the current election is motivating him to be as vocal as ever about his concerns for the future.


“I have major issues with everything going on with Donald Trump,"said Miller. "Not only the racist and heartless comments he makes, but also the massive following he has.”

Jeremy Miller is a member of the Fresno Police Chief's Youth Advisory Board.
Kody Stoebig

If like-minded people can raise their voice in unison, he suggested, it could act as a counterweight to the hurtful rhetoric being propagated by Trump and his followers.


“It is important that everyone voices their opinions and issues, especially those who are forgotten, marginalized and oppressed. We as a people have the power to change legislation and how politics affect us if we come together.”

Using social media

Marissa Vang, 17, of Fresno is a year shy of being able to vote this year, but that hasn’t stopped her from using social media as a platform to express her politics and influence others who can vote.


“My voice is being heard, this is what matters,” said Vang. “Your input matters, my input matters, and when you have a platform to express that, it creates future adults who will vote.”

Marissa Vang, 17, uses social media as a tool for political activism in Fresno, Calif.
Kody Stoebig

Like her fellow Fresnan, Jeremy Miller, it isn’t one particular issue that’s galvanizing Vang, as much as it is the presidential race.


“It’s a bit alarming to see that in this country we have an impulsively driven candidate, such as Donald Trump, who is so close to becoming the President of the United States."

This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.

Gabriela Espinal, from San Diego, recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz where she earned degrees in art history and visual culture, and feminist studies. For the past three years Gabriela was a part of the student broadcasting organization Rainbow TV, a group that would film and edit live productions put on by the Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center at UCSC. More recently, Gabriela has been working with Media Arts Center San Diego in their Teen Producers Project, a program that gives local youth access to video cameras and editing software so they can engage in digital storytelling as a means of self-expression, communication and social change. As a fellow, Gabriela is interested in reporting on housing insecurity, immigration reform, human rights concerns along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the school to prison pipeline. Gabriela is very excited and grateful to be working with Fusion as a Rise Up: Be Heard fellow.


Kody Stoebig is a Visalia native who currently works with The kNOw, a youth media organization in Fresno, California. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Fresno Pacific University where she earned a degree in communication and served as the editor of her school newspaper, the Syrinx. Kody's work at The kNOw has centered strongly around youth development and community health. She has a passion for social justice and for giving others a platform to share their stories. As a fellow, she would like to focus on “stories surrounding gender issues and the unfair stigma those with mental health issues face in our society."