Engaging the Youngest Voters

Pictured Above: Jane Paulson and Grace Schmelzer of Westhampton Beach High School, East Hampton 17-year old Olivia Davis and Bridgehampton 17-year-old Olivia Casson at the Nov. 14 event.

One mission of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons is to engage aspiring teenage female leaders with the inspiring stories of local elected women, and this year, they’re encouraging what might be an even more personal reason for them to engage in the political process.

As of Jan. 1, 2020, teenagers young as 16 in New York will be allowed to pre-register to vote once they turn 18, thanks to a recent change made by the state legislature.

About 40 young women from six South Fork high schools met with The League at the Water Mill Community House on the morning of Nov. 14 to brainstorm how to bring voter registration drives back to their high schools this winter.

It was part of the League’s annual “Running and Winning” workshop organized by its Education Committee.

“We’re asking students to be ambassadors. They’re coming up with ideas and we’ll go back to the schools with them to implement them,” said Judi Roth, co-chair of The League’s Education Committee, surrounded by excited students brainstorming in mixed groups with students they didn’t know from other schools in the main meeting room at the Community House. 

By a wide picture window, 16-year-olds Jane Paulson and Grace Schmelzer of Westhampton Beach High School, East Hampton 17-year old Olivia Davis and Bridgehampton 17-year-old Olivia Casson were finishing work on a cheerful sign urging 16-year-olds to make their voices heard. Their plan was to have a school-wide assembly explaining the importance of registering to vote, and then having history teachers bring the students to the registration drive throughout the school day. Both Olivias were working on a speech to be delivered at the assembly.

While the group was excited that younger people can now become engaged in civic life sooner by registering to vote at 16, Ms. Davis said she wouldn’t go as far as to lower the voting age to 16.

“Youth aren’t sure what they stand for,” she said, adding that she believed she and the other young women present were outliers among their peers in their sense of civic engagement. “You need to care about what happens in your community. Keeping it 18-plus gives you room to figure out who you are and what you stand for.”

Students, including Gylia Dryden (center), work on the poster urging students to walk 16 steps to register to vote.

At the next table over, 16-year-old Gylia Dryden of Bridgehampton was working with her group on a theme of “16 Steps to Decide Your Future,” encouraging students to walk 16 steps representing each of their 16 years to reach the nearby voter registration table.

“If you don’t vote, you don’t control your future,” said Ms. Dryden. “It’s a sign of independence.”

Ms. Dryden, a junior with just 13 students in her class, said she’s optimistic about being able to clearly communicate the urgency of voting to all of her fellow students.

“This has driven me to want to speak out,” she said.

Seventeen-year-old East Hampton High School Senior Kendall Stedman is no stranger to the political process. She was selected last spring for a League of Women Voters program in which she had a chance to shadow state legislators in Albany.

“We learned about how government worked, and we talked about our opinions on what we should be doing,” she said, adding that she was impressed to be able to have conversations with legislators as if they were regular people, not unapproachable powerful leaders as they appear on television.

Her group’s poster was designed to remind students that every vote counts.

“In East Hampton last year, someone won by 15 votes,” she said. “Even if people think their vote doesn’t matter, it does.”

Some of the posters for the student voter registration drives.

Before they began work on their projects, the students heard from about a half-dozen local female elected officials about the reasons they engage in public life.

“They really talked about the challenges and their commitment to doing the right thing,” said Ms. Roth.

Newly elected Sag Harbor Mayor Kathy Mulcahy gave the keynote address.

Despite her work in the Sag Harbor community through her support for youth while her kids attended Sag Harbor’s schools, as a board member of 725 Green and Sag Harbor Kids and in helping to put together a lecture series called Main Street Conversations, Ms. Mulcahy said she was stunned when she decided to run for office that she was immediately faced with a backlash from people grumbling that she “didn’t have any experience. How dare she run for the village’s top job?”

“I took a deep breath, and then I thought, wait a minute. I have a lot of experience,” she told the rapt audience.

Sag Harbor Mayor Kathy Mulcahy

She first thought about her retail experience, from a teenage job in a lamp store to her current work running the shop at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

She said that, when customers walk through the door of a retail store, they often have a vague idea of what they want among the hundreds or thousands of items in the store.

“You need to help people get to that decision,” she said. “It’s the same in politics. You could do 1,000 things but what are the seven or eight most important things you could do? That’s how retail has helped me.”

Ms. Mulcahy then talked about her work as a marketing executive handling accounts ranging from Pepsi-Cola to Frito-Lay. 

“You have to reiterate key points and stay on brand,” she said. “Pepsi was about the future. We left Santa Claus to Coke.”

Likewise, she said, elected leaders need to remember “what we stand for five or ten years from now.”

“Sag Harbor is at a crossroads,” she said. “We don’t want to be the San Tropez of the Hamptons. We want clean water, bikable paths and walkable sidewalks.”

Ms. Mulcahy has also recently become a real estate agent, which, she’s discovered, is good training for political hardball.

“Real estate out here is a fascinating business. It’s a really tough business. It can be really backbiting, the same as politics,” she said. 

“You have to learn to listen really well in real estate,” she said, adding that clients, whether they are buyers or sellers, have a dream in mind, and you have to appreciate and help implement their dreams.

Ms. Mulcahy said that, when she began running for mayor, she decided to knock on doors all over Sag Harbor, something had been unheard-of among candidates for village office.

“I probably met all 497 people who voted for me,” she said.

The students also seemed both sobered and inspired by the leaders.

“It’s not an easy job,” said Olivia Casson, of Bridgehampton High School. “If you lose an election, what do you have left? You need another job.”

“They emphasized that it was a part time job, but also it wasn’t because they were there five nights a week, being there for the community,” said Olivia Davis, of East Hampton High School.

Ms. Davis said she’s interested in pursuing a career in politics.

“I like to help people. You need to find your passion, and what drives you,” she said. “I want to give voice to people who don’t have the means to speak their voice. I was very encouraged. Everyone in here is a strong woman.”

Ms. Stedman, of East Hampton, also said she would like to run for office. She said she is most interested in legislative bodies that set broad policy, and she’s most passionate about environmental issues, from Lyme Disease to climate change to the South Fork Wind Farm.

“I think it’s great,” she said of the wind farm. “I don’t support Not In My Backyard ideas.”

She added that she is also passionate about not using pesticides in creeks, and has been encouraged by Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming’s support of reducing pesticide use in Accabonac Harbor in Springs, where Ms. Stedman lives.

Ms. Stedman, who is also studying acid rain through a research program with the University of Albany, said she’s most excited about the work of local legislative bodies, and wouldn’t be interested in national politics — at least not yet.

“Congress intimidates me,” she said. But, she added, that may change when she gets older.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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