OTTUMWA — Students crowded around a polling station in the OHS cafeteria Thursday afternoon as the votes slowly trickled in. Polls were open all three lunch periods, but by the end of first lunch it was clear which candidate had won the hearts and minds of OHS.
In a terrible upset, chocolate-chip cookies beat Oreos by more than 100 votes.
This mock straw poll, which saw students vote for what kind of cookie they preferred, was hosted by the school’s Human Rights Youth Chapter, as part of the YMCA’s national Welcoming Week Celebration. The event was held in partnership with the Iowa Secretary of State’s office and Inspire to Vote, a national organization that encourages youth engagement in politics.
The event was more than just a vote between desserts. It was an opportunity for students to learn about the political process, how straw polls work, and for students 17-and-a-half or older, a chance to register to vote. By the end of the day, the drive had registered 34 students to vote.
“We’re really working on bringing people together in a spirit of unity — immigrants or US-born, and teaching them about each other, celebrating each other, and getting them involved in their communities,” said Kayla Eckerman, youth and family programs coordinator at the Ottumwa YMCA. “And voting is one way to do that.”
The Ottumwa HRYC, which is the first of its kind in the state of Iowa, is an organization that promotes student diversity and inclusion. They were behind the annual Cultural Fair to Celebrate Diversity, an event that allows students and their families to share and learn about one another’s cultural backgrounds.
Civic engagement is also a central idea within the club. Megan Cantu, a senior at OHS and member of the HRYC, said a desire to stand up for under-represented people drew her to the club. And voting is a great way to enact change.
“It’s important to get kids knowledgeable and involved in politics from a young age,” said Cantu, an Oreo proponent. “Because voting is very important and it impacts us, so getting youth to speak up about issues and their thoughts is very important.”
As part of the drive, students who were too young to register to vote could fill out pledge cards vowing they would register once they came of age. At the bottom of each card was a three question survey about voting habits of those they know.
One of the statements respondents answered to was “People around me think voting is important.” To the organizers’ dismay, many of the students checked off “disagree” or “somewhat agree.”
“I mean that’s a huge reason why people aren’t voting!” Eckerman said. “Because they’re being socialized into this thought that voting is hard, or voting doesn’t matter. So coming into their space, and telling them why it’s important, showing them that it’s important, making it sound cool — and easy! That’s the thing, it’s so easy.”
While some may dismiss young voters as misinformed or disengaged, Cantu didn’t agree.
“I think with social media and everything, I think we underestimate how much kids know about politics and the system,” she said. “We definitely know more than people think.”
“When you have youth in positions of power, that’s what creates the waves, that’s what creates the change and gets the excitement up,” she said. “Our community really needs to put more youth in those positions like we’re doing here today. They’re proving that it’s successful.”