By Olivia George
 |  Special to The Journal

Olivia Williams remembers that night well. She remembers watching in shock as Donald Trump began to grasp victory. She was watching it unfold on TV with her family in Berkeley, California — from the same TV she had so jubilantly watched the announcement of Barack Obama’s win four and eight years prior. She remembers watching her mother cry.

That same night, Ainsley Clapp was home in South Berwick, Maine. In an attempt to calm her Election Day nerves, she baked cupcakes in the shape of an American flag and hoped for the best.

Jay Rhodenhiser did not stay up for the results to be called in. Obviously Trump is going to lose, she thought. The next day, at her high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she cried alongside her peers and teachers.

And Johanna Bandler was in Rennes, France, on a study abroad program. She watched the final results trickle in from a screen in the American institute in the city. 

All four were 16 years old. All were certain Hillary Rodham Clinton would win. And after Donald Trump was elected president, all four were left to collectively wonder: How did we not see this coming? And, why weren’t we more involved? 

Four years later, they are all housemates and juniors at Brown University. And now, not only have they each cast their first vote in a presidential election, but they have spent hours on end phone banking for the Iowa Democratic Party, imploring voters to check their polling locations, head to the polls and encourage friends and family to do the same.

From their first-floor apartment tucked into a leafy street on the East Side, they have collectively spent close to 200 hours phone banking in recent weeks, all while managing their school work. “Their living room is like campaign HQ,” one friend joked.

Low voting rates among young people have been a hallmark of American elections for decades. In the 2016 presidential election, fewer than half of eligible voters between 18 and 29 years old cast a ballot.

But this year could be different. And beyond their anticipated higher voter turnout, young people, mobilized by issues like systemic racism and the climate crisis, have volunteered en masse. They are embracing a role in politics, often in reaction to their ineligibility to vote in 2016. 

“I knew I couldn’t wake up on November 4 thinking that I could have done more to get Trump out of office,” Williams told The Journal early Tuesday evening in between phone banking shifts.

“The WiFi can’t take this level of phone calls,” Bandler calls from another room. 

“Yeah!” Williams calls back. “My computer has been really slow!”

Just as the pandemic has sent the students online for classes, they are taking their canvassing and organizing effort online, too. Social media, Williams said, has been hugely helpful in encouraging others to get involved and to stay motivated. She and her housemates have been recruiting friends to help out via Instagram. 

“I found that a lot of people are down to get involved and are willing to help and want to help,” she said. “But if you give them the sign up link on their own they are so unlikely to take the initiative.”

Then she started reaching out one-on-one and guiding people through the process.

“I texted over 200 people in my contacts. Friends, family, my parents’ friends, my ex. Everyone,” she said. “I’ve signed up over 60 people to do shifts in the past three weeks.”

In recent days, many Iowans they call have already voted. Even more don’t pick up the phone in the first place. But it is for the few voices on the other end of the line that remain undecided, or the ones who don’t know where their poll station is that the four friends persist. 

Elections alone do not solve everything, the four friends emphasized. “But nothing alone is the solution,” Bandler added. “We have to believe that making these calls makes a difference.”

And the Iowan voters phone bankers reach could make the difference between President Trump and Joe Biden winning the White House: a new poll from Iowa on Saturday showed Trump up by seven percentage points, but the state is hotly contested. 

“I got another one,” Clapp, the housemate from Maine, yells from down the hall. This means she’d convinced another friend to sign up for a phone banking shift in the final hours before the Iowa polls close. 

Motivation from each other has gone a long way, Clapp said. “I love hearing their voices on the phone,” she said of her housemates. “I can hear it through the walls.”

Today she decided to wear a T-shirt lettered with a single word: “Optimism.” But optimism, she said, is not enough. “Today is not a day to sit back and see what happens.” 

Today is a day to act, she added, so you don’t have to wake up the morning of election results and think: Why wasn’t I more involved?

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