How suburban League of Women Voters chapters are encouraging the next generation of voters

Last school year, nearly 3,500 students across the Northwest suburbs who turned 18 received an unexpected gift: a hand-delivered birthday envelope.

In it was a letter with information on how to register to vote, along with an accompanying sticker, magnet and a pen - embellished with the quote: "The VOTE is mightier than the pen."

The surprise birthday envelopes were conceived by members of Northwest suburban chapters of the League of Women Voters, including those in Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect and Buffalo Grove, as well as Prospect Heights, Elk Grove Village and Wheeling.

With National Voter Registration Day coming up Sept. 24, League members are more committed than ever to their birthday envelopes.

This school year, they are expanding it to include 17-year olds, since any 17-year-old can register to vote in the March 2020 primary as long as they will be 18 by Nov. 2, 2020.

They are partnering with all six high schools in Northwest Suburban High School District 214, including Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove, Hersey, Prospect, Rolling Meadows and Wheeling high schools, as well as St. Viator High School and the Academy at Forest View, both in Arlington Heights, to deliver their envelopes.

Joan Sellergren of Arlington Heights first introduced the idea after learning of a similar campaign carried out by the Naperville League of Women Voters.

"It was after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, when the kids started speaking around the country," Sellergren says. "That really got to me."

After doing some research, members learned that voter turnout hit a 20-year low in the 2016 election, with only 55 percent of those eligible casting their votes, according to CNN.

Further statistics compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that among young voters ages 18-24, only 50 percent were registered to vote and of those only 39 percent actually followed through and voted in the 2016 election.

The birthday envelopes distributed to students in the Northwest suburbs include information on how to get an absentee ballot for those going to college out of state. Courtesy of League of Women Voters

Members of the League of Women Voters are committed to encouraging "informed and active participation of citizens in government." They also work to increase understanding of major public policy issues and influence public policy through education and advocacy.

Yet, getting local citizens to register to vote continues to drive them, especially young voters. League members point to a Pew Research Center study published in January that said Generation Z voters are projected to make up one in 10 eligible voters in the 2020 election, up from 4 percent in the 2016 election.

After just one year, League members were thrilled with the positive results from their birthday envelopes initiative. They report that:

• 79.6 percent received their envelope.

• 210 students cited the birthday envelope program as the main reason they registered to vote.

• 1,251 students cited the birthday envelope as making it more likely they registered to vote.

The remaining students said they would have registered regardless of receiving the envelopes.

Here's how their data broke down, according to 18-year-olds in each village:

• Arlington Heights, 3,684

• Buffalo Grove, 619

• Des Plaines, 963

• Elk Grove Village, 860

• Mount Prospect, 2,673

• Prospect Heights, 756

• Rolling Meadows, 719

• Wheeling, 1,631

League of Women Voters President Heidi Graham takes a selfie of herself and club members stuffing birthday envelopes. The response has been so positive to this campaign to get younger voters registered, that they are expanding it this year to include 17-year olds. Courtesy of League of Women Voters

League President Heidi Graham of Arlington Heights says although the envelope project is expensive - it costs approximately $1 per envelope - the investment is worth it.

"The League formed in 1920, when women finally won the right to vote, and even then only 40 percent of women voted," Graham says. "We are dedicated to making sure that the population not only has the right to vote, but is given the tools that give them the education and empowerment to vote."

To learn more about the local chapters of the League of Women Voters, and to donate to this birthday envelope cause, visit:

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