Then-rising Henry M. Gunn High School seniors James Huang and Allen Zhang had been knocking on doors for over three hours. They had recited the same script to at least 100 people, and still had at least a dozen houses left to canvas.
This was just a typical afternoon for Huang and Zhang, who were canvassing as part of the Youth Voting Initiative, a Palo Alto-based student organization which aims to increase voter turnout in local, state and national elections. The two were convincing East Palo Altans to vote in the 2021 California recall election of Governor Gavin Newsom, which Huang deemed a “demoralizing” undertaking.
Allen Zhang and his younger brother Peter Zhang founded YVI in June 2020, after observing low voting participation, especially within the Bay Area’s Asian-dominated community. After looking through Asian voter turnout data, their observations were confirmed.
“There’s many times when I’m talking to family friends … [and] nobody is really talking about this issue [low voter turnout],” Allen Zhang said. “Voting is really the fundamental of any democratic system, … especially in recent years.”
Today, the organization has dozens of high school chapters in and out of California. Its volunteers have convinced hundreds of adults to vote, and it has even organized two panels with 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
“Teens aren’t as involved in politics as they used to be,” Peter Zhang said. “And [Yang] was saying that we’re the next generation and said, ‘It’s awesome that you’re doing this,’ and that’s what inspired us to keep doing what we’re doing.”
From the start, Allen Zhang and Peter Zhang knew they wanted to kick off YVI with two main projects: phone banking and canvassing. YVI members called dozens of people per week to promote voter registration using resources such as Rock the Vote and APIAVote, which provided them with unregistered citizens’ contact information across the U.S., Allen Zhang and Huang said.
“[Phone banking] wasn’t too much of a hassle to get going,” Huang said. “We’d just contact voters across the country, since that was really easy to do. You can literally make a phone call from anywhere.”
Door-to-door canvassing proved less simple. Canvassers had to consider the weather and amount of houses they planned on reaching.
“It was kind of hard to get the scale necessary to make a really big dent in voter abstention,” Huang said. “You’re going to get really low response rates no matter what you do.”
Peter Zhang said neighborhoods with a lower voter turnout were top priority when canvassing. According to him, canvassing provides the ability to have a one-on-one conversation that isn’t comparable to talking over the phone or through text.
“Some people say they’re not interested, and we have this script and [we’ve made] some changes,” Peter Zhang said. “Instead of saying, ‘We’re YVI,’ we introduce ourselves as local high school students and close that distance between them.”
Still, canvassing was frustrating for the teens. After hours of rewardless canvassing on a particularly hot summer day in 2021, Huang and Allen Zhang were dehydrated and quickly growing tired.
“I knocked, and I was like, ‘Have you heard of the California recall?’ and [the homeowner] literally just says, ‘No, I haven’t,’” Huang said. “I don’t know why, but that was such a huge relief to me.”
For the next five minutes, the two walked the man through the basics of the recall and scribbled down key points for him to later refer to.
“At the very end [of the conversation] he says, ‘Yeah, okay. I’ll vote,’” Huang said. “And there was just an absolutely euphoric feeling.”
In order to maintain nonpartisanship throughout all of the organization’s chapters, YVI board members provide a “rough guideline” on how to canvas unbiasedly, Allen Zhang said. In their Dallas chapter, Allen Zhang said he ensures that both suburbs and city areas are canvassed, avoiding unintentional prejudice.
“We’re just encouraging people to vote,” Allen Zhang said. “Whether you’re Republican or Independent or [a] Democrat, you can agree on that point.”
In 2021, YVI partnered with The Institute for Youth in Policy, a nonprofit also founded by a Gunn student. Combined, the two organizations have roughly 2,000 volunteers across the country who work to canvass and increase voter participation in their districts.
“This [canvassing] is a really good outlet for teenagers who are one or two years away from voting for the very first time,” Huang said. “It’s really important for people to get a basis for getting involved in civics and politics.”
But YVI isn’t just stopping at canvassing. Once the organization is approved as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, it’ll get access to more voter contacts from the California Secretary of State and start introducing text banking into its operations, Allen Zhang said. According to him, people open texts at a much higher rate than they do emails, making it a better alternative.
Allen Zhang said the organization’s new projects and goals are more important than ever, especially with such low voter turnout. In order to combat this, he said people need to express their opinions through elections.
“You can be as engaged as you want,” Allen Zhang said. “You can go to protests, write letters to a congressman, you can do all that. But ultimately, what counts is your vote and who you voted for.”