Jonathan Schwartz (’13) is one of the founders and leaders of Every Vote Counts, and in the fall of 2019, he was invited to sit on a panel entitled “Cast Your Vote: How Students are Shaping American Democracy” at the #SpeechMatters event at the University of California. A junior at Yale, Schwartz is pursuing a double major in Economics and Statistics and Data Science as well as an Advanced Language Certificate in Spanish. Yet his education in the classroom is only part of his story. And he credits his experience at Sycamore as a driver in his ability to juggle his classroom education, his extracurricular work, and his desire to push himself to become a leader.
Schwartz says his interest in the voting process started during his senior year at North Central High School.
“During the fall of my senior year at North Central High School, I was involved with a campaign to pass two funding referenda for Washington Township Schools and to elect the school board candidates endorsed by our district’s parents’ and teachers’ associations,” he says. “My job was to represent the student perspective to the campaign’s steering committee and, in turn, to encourage my fellow students to support our campaign.
Along with a few friends, including Sycamore and North Central classmate, Joey Mervis, Schwartz founded Students for MSDWT (Metropolitan School District of Washington Township) with a twofold mission: to organize students around the particular campaigns they were working on; and, more broadly, to encourage high school students to engage meaningfully in the school board politics that directly impact their everyday lives.
“Our success was incredible,” he says of the high school program. “Over the course of a few short months, we engaged hundreds of students in phone banking, door knocking, and voter registration. I’ve always been interested in politics, and I chose these particular causes to work on because I care deeply about maintaining high-quality public schools and wanted to do everything I could to support the teachers and administrators who had done so much to support me.”
Fast forward to his freshman year at Yale in 2017, and Schwartz found himself at the first Every Vote Counts (EVC) meeting in the basement of the Yale library with around 30 students. He says he realized that our democracy, with a voting turnout of less than half of his age group, could be in trouble, and he wanted to do what he could to reverse this course.
He joined EVC with the aspiration of building a national, non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and civic engagement on college campuses. Since then, they’ve built the organization at Yale, hired a full time staff, and expanded to nearly 50 chapters around the country. In addition to his leadership as a founder of the organization, Schwartz serves both as Director of Voter Engagement for our Yale chapter and a member of EVC’s National Advisory Board.
In this role as leader of the Yale “Every Vote Counts” group, Schwartz was surprised to learn a large reason for low voter turnout for young voters. “I figured there were students like us all around the country organizing and mobilizing to ensure our generation was heard at the ballot box. To my surprise, I learned that I was terribly wrong. People ages 18-24 voted at the lowest rate of any age group: a mere 43%.”
After three years in the field, Schwartz has learned a sobering truth: he was finding that young people aren’t voting because they don’t believe their vote, or their right to vote, matters.
“Troublingly, over the past few years, it’s become clear to me that what we’re facing now is more than just a failure of our election system. We’re facing a crisis of faith in our democracy. I care about voting because I care about our democracy. Americans, and especially those in my generation, too often forget that American democracy is an experiment, not a rule. It’s something that must be continually supported and nurtured with our participation and care.”
As Schwartz learned more about the voting habits of those in his age group, he found recent history showed turnout in this age group had not risen above 50%. Learning this fired Schwartz up to continue his quest to get young voters involved in the process, and to the polls. Or as he says, “fight to engage my generation in our democracy.”
In it for the long game, Schwartz says they want to work on continuing to expand the organizations reach and create new chapters around the country. That will allow reach beyond the 2020 election, as they institute ideas that promote civic engagement as a year-round lifestyle rather than an election-centered exercise.
“While we’ve grown and learned a lot as an organization, our core mission has remained the same: to increase voter turnout and expand voter access nationwide through engagement, education, and reform. We do this by leading inclusive voter engagement efforts on our campuses, advocating for expanded ballot access at the federal and state levels, and educating our communities about the importance of civic leadership.”
While he is neck-deep in what he is taking on in college, Schwartz says his Sycamore experiences have shaped how he continues to tackle his education and his work outside of the classroom.
“I realize that what made Sycamore so special and so instrumental in my educational career is not what I learned, though I’ll never forget the hundreds of roots, prefixes, and suffixes I learned in Ms. O’Malley’s class or the story of the Battle of Balaklava as told by Mr. Young,” he says. “But that I learned how to learn. I learned the importance of thinking, reading, and writing critically, the value of asking questions and of exploring primary sources, and the need to take notes and organize myself in a way that works for me.”
One of his favorite teachers was Tony Young, the longtime Middle School History teacher. “On top of the energy and genuine care he brings to the classroom every day, Mr. Young teaches young people how to be informed and engaged caretakers of our democracy.” Schwartz remembers how Young would ask students to form an argument about the use of the atomic bomb, discuss student protest and participation during the Cold War era, or host Supreme Court simulations. “Mr. Young consistently encouraged us to form and debate our opinions and to think critically about our government and our history.”
“I have a lot of different titles with a lot of different groups,” he says. “But my role in all of them is the same: to think about ways we can best develop a culture and community of voter participation and civic engagement on campus.”
In addition to his roles with EVC, Schwartz is a leader of the Yale Votes Taskforce, a committee chartered by the Associate Vice President of Student Life and the Yale College Council with the goals of improving voter turnout on Yale’s campus and coordinating voter engagement efforts across the university. He is also a member of the National Student Board, and the Director of Voter Engagement for Yale’s chapter.
“In each of these roles, I develop resources, tools, and best practices to conduct voter engagement efforts on college campuses and share them with our partners around the country,” he says. Schwartz represents Yale at the Ivy League Votes Challenge, which is a coalition of students from each of the eight Ivy League schools formed to coordinate efforts and set goals for civic engagement on campuses. He also leads the Yale Census Coalition, a coalition of student organizations working together to ensure a complete count of the Yale and New Haven Communities in the 2020 Census.
“I’m not entirely sure what I’d like to do immediately after college, though I’m fairly confident that I’d like to go to law school at some point,” says Schwartz, who worked as an intern on Senator Joe Donnelly’s campaign in 2018 and as a Summer Legislative Assistant at the Anti-Defamation League in 2019. This summer, he was scheduled to be working at a leading economic consulting firm in Washington, D.C. That is on hold during the Coronavirus shutdown.
“I know with certainty, though, that whatever I do, I’ll find a way, either as a vocation or avocation, to continue working on the issues I care deeply about.”
While it might seem like a lot of work for a college student to fill the many self-created roles during the year, Schwartz has a boundless passion and energy for the jobs. One of his passions is his work for the University of California’s “National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement on Campus.”
“One of the Center’s cornerstone programs is its annual #SpeechMatters conference. This year, I had the incredible honor of speaking at the conference on a panel entitled “’Cast Your Vote: How Students are Shaping American Democracy.’” He also authored the Center’s recent Speech Spotlight publication: Engaging Student Voters.
“It’s incredibly important to mention just how much has changed since I started this voter work in 2017. At the beginning, I figured low voter turnout was a mechanical problem. I thought lack of enthusiasm and the difficulty of the process were the primary reasons young people were failing to vote.”
What he has discovered is the perceived lack of influence felt by young voters within the voting process. As he mentioned in his panel speech at the #SpeechMatters Conference, the only American democracy his generation knows has been one “manipulated by politicians on both sides of the aisle, interest groups, and foreign governments.” He says it should come with little surprise that now, a generation of disfunction is starting to take its toll.
“What this means is not that we should give up, but that we need to fight harder for a future we can all believe in and rededicate ourselves to the American values that have allowed our democracy to thrive in the past. It means we need to reclaim an American patriotism by debating our opinions, criticizing our leaders, and participating in our democratic process. It means we need to listen to young people’s thoughts and experiences and convince them that our democracy can work for them, too."