NSHS student Malian takes aim at low voter turnout with senior project

NSHS student Malian takes aim at low voter turnout with senior project

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea addresses juniors and seniors about the importance of voting during an assembly at NSHS last week. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

NORTH SMITHFIELD – For his senior project, North Smithfield High School student George Malian chose to focus on one of the hardest earned and least utilized privileges of American democracy: voting.

Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that in 2016, only 62.5 percent of Rhode Islanders age 18 and older voted in the presidential election. In 2014, only 43.3 percent, less than half of eligible voters, voted in the midterm election. It’s a trend Malian hopes to change through his project, which brought Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and representatives from the state Board of Elections to the high school last week to speak with students about the importance of voting and hold a voter registration drive.

“I think through this project we’re trying to stress the importance of engaging in the civic process,” Malian told The Breeze.

He first got the idea to involve the secretary of state in his project last spring when his AP U.S. History class had the opportunity to meet Gorbea while visiting the Rhode Island State Archives. However, he saw a need for greater civic awareness in the school long before that. In 2016, the school held a mock election to simulate the presidential election, and, even in a school setting, said Malian, the turnout was disappointing.

“I noticed that there was a good sum of people that didn’t care or didn’t want to participate,” he said.

Many scholars have tried to identify why young voters are the least engaged in the voting process of all U.S. citizens. In 2016, only 46 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds nationwide voted in the presidential election, compared with 58 percent of those in their 30s and 70 percent of those age 60 and above. Malian thinks social media might play a role, coaxing users into a false sense of impact as their words gain traction among their peers but have no tangible effect unless they carry over to the ballot box.

“Especially among our generation, people think voicing their opinions on social media and tweeting something is enough. They don’t understand that that opinion needs to take fruition,” he explained.

Gorbea agreed, telling students at an assembly last Wednesday that voting was the best way to make their public expressions matter.

“There’s many opportunities, of course, to get your voice heard – in a tweet, a snap, an Instagram post – but nothing has an effect like voting,” she said.

As she explained to the students, residents of Rhode Island have three ways to vote – on election day, by mail ballot or by emergency mail ballot at Town Hall – and new voters can pre-register as young as age 16. She also admitted social media can still play a role, showing the students the social media accounts her office uses to promote voting.

“This is where it really counts. This is where your voice is heard,” she said.

Malian, for his part, has been highly engaged in the civic process for most of his high school career, participating in the school’s We the People program as a freshman, appearing before the Town Council and School Committee and serving as a page at the Rhode Island House of Representatives. He’s also senior class president and hopes to go on to study political science and possibly law school.

“That was always something that I cared deeply about,” he said. “How vital it is for people to actually preserve the American democracy and how essential voting is to that preservation.”

Malian was an outspoken critic of the Town Council during its recent controversial vote on a resolution opposing the purchase of Nike products by town and school departments.

As part of his project, he plans to write a research paper on engagement of young voters and upgrade the school’s student elections to include actual ballot boxes this spring. In the meantime, he’s encouraging all eligible voters to get out and make their voice heard by casting a ballot on Nov. 6.