An Interview with USYF founder Melissa Ballard and Santiago Mayer from Voters of Tomorrow
January 5, 2022
Interviewee Name: Santiago Mayer (Founder and Executive Director at Voters of Tomorrow)
Interviewer Name: Melissa Ballard (Founder of United States Youth Forum)
Transcription By: Eva Munkittrick (Editorial Assistant at United States Youth Forum)
Contact Method: Zoom
Date: January 5th, 2022
List of Acronyms: MB = Melissa Ballard, SM = Santiago Mayer
[Intro] MB: Santiago Mayer, a political commentator and young activist, is the Founder and Executive Director of Voters of Tomorrow, as well as the Chairman of the Board. Santiago moved to the United States from Mexico in 2017, and is currently enrolled at California State University, Long Beach, where he studies Mechanical Engineering and Political Science.
MB: Santiago, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm really excited to have the chance to interview you, and I want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit down with me. I really appreciate it.
SM: Thank you for having me.
MB: Of course. I was hoping that you could tell me a little bit more about the Voters of Tomorrow project, which you founded and are the executive director of. How did you start the organization? Maybe you can explain its vision or how it operates?
SM: I have to kind of go into a bit of backstory. I moved to the United States in 2017, in the middle of the Trump administration, and I came from Mexico and being an immigrant, I was seeing everything going on with the Muslim ban and how that was affecting people. Being in high school, I wanted to talk about it with people in my class and my friends and teachers. Now, I quickly realized that people my age either didn't know what was going on, or those who did, didn't have a really good understanding of it. So, I decided to start tweeting my frustrations for one reason or another. I built a platform, and as we got closer to the 2020 elections, after the midterms, I realized I needed to do something with that platform. So, in the summer of 2019, I started looking for a name; I settled for the Voters of Tomorrow. I registered a Twitter account, and I bought a domain. In December of 2019, we finally started doing some work. The three core goals of Voters of Tomorrow are to educate young voters about what's going on, to engage them, to make sure that they're voting and that they're participating in democracy. And finally, to make sure they are represented in politics and government. We fight to make sure that their voices are heard, that the policy that is being debated and adopted has their input. And that they are elected to office and those who are not running at least have a voice with people who are elected. And we've been working since - we worked during the 2020 election, we worked during the Georgia runoffs, and we are preparing to go work during the 2020 midterms. So…
MB: The work never ends.
SM: It never ends, we are in a no-sleep cycle.
MB: Every election seems slightly more consequential than the last one, or so it appears. I would like to also ask what you find to be the biggest challenge for young voters.
SM: I think the biggest challenge for young voters is making sure that they understand that their voice matters and their vote matters. We've seen time and time again that politicians don't like to listen to young voters because, according to them, they're not a reliable voting segment. That could not be further from the truth. I mean, if we look at 2018, or 2020, young voters are a big part of the reason why we're not stuck with a Donald Trump-led fascist movement in power right now. And I think that having young voters be represented is not only good politics for every person currently in office, but it's also just a very important democratic decision. In a democracy, everyone should be represented, and everyone should have a voice. Leaving a segment of voters out of the conversation is simply not acceptable.
MB: Are there any policy changes that can be adopted that would better engage young voters and inspire them to vote?
SM: We have a few. We are currently pushing for the Biden administration to establish a White House Advisory Council for young Americans and this would bring Gen Z and millennial activists into the White House in order to help advise the President on issues pertinent to young people and youth priorities. We are also pushing for every elected official at every level of government to either convene a Youth Advisory Council or at least have several youth advisors, who are currently in college and high school, who are just entering the workforce and who can provide that youth perspective that politicians very frequently do not have access to. In terms of policy, just listen to what young people are saying; there are a lot of young people with very strong opinions with very large platforms on social media, and they're not particularly hard to find. Politicians can literally go on Twitter and see what young people are asking for, and maybe not take the action, but to at least take [their insight] into account.
MB: What do you think engages young voters? What are especially important issues for them, or especially salient issues?
SM: Voters of Tomorrow has been doing some research on that area. We partner with Generation Labs, a polling company that specifically focuses on research and young voters. And we are going to be releasing what we call the “density agenda”. It is a list of policies that young people care deeply about and that they want to see action on. We're going to be releasing that probably over the next few months. We obviously know, we're young people ourselves, we have a good idea of what inspires us and what inspires other young people. And it's basically what comes to mind when we want to take action on climate change. We want to have a world to live in. We want gun violence prevention measures because we're tired of seeing every week another mass shooting. We want action on racial and economic inequality, because it is simply unacceptable that a segment of the population continues to be treated as if it is unequal. And finally, we need action to really bring the US into the 21st century. And that goes from everything like infrastructure and public transportation to education and healthcare systems - those three reforms that really give young Americans an opportunity to compete on the global stage.
MB: Do some of these issues feel like - not really eternal issues -, but they seem like issues that young people have been fighting for, for a while, or activists in these areas have been fighting for, for a while. It seems like it'd be easy to become discouraged? Because there doesn't always seem to be a lot of movement on these issue fronts. Do you find that there have been some notable successes you've been able to celebrate in the last couple of years?
SM: We have seen a lot of gridlock at the federal level. Of course, we are seeing improvements. I think Build Back Better is currently paused. But we know that there is still action on it. And a lot of people are trying to get it moving again. We're hearing whispers that a climate-only bill might be moving forward, that includes some of the largest climate components from Build Back Better that would go into its own separate bill. That would be a big improvement. And we have also seen the infrastructure bill, it gets criticized by a lot of people, but it does include a very large investment in public transportation, to help make the US competitive on that front. And we've also seen a lot of stuff done at the state and local levels. We've seen California, for example, which just became a vote by mail state. And that is something that young people benefit incredibly from because, as we know, young people really don't like to go out to a polling place and stand in line for eight hours. The fact that they can receive a ballot in their mail and just vote from home is incredibly important. There are a lot of discouragements, but, we are also seeing slight improvements and, I think, incremental improvements are better than nothing. We're going to keep fighting until we can get - until we can get the stuff done that young people need.
MB: You mentioned the Vote By Mail initiative that passed in California, and how that's particularly beneficial for young people. Are there other changes that might be beneficial to young people when it comes to ways that we can improve our voting system? Are there any systemic challenges that young people face when it comes to voting that perhaps we can change to make it a bit easier for them?
SM: There are a lot. I mean, Texas makes it incredibly hard to go and register young people, for example. If you've ever tried to do a voter registration drive in Texas, you will find that not only are you not allowed to go and register people without being certified yourself, but the actual process of registering is really complicated. There are also states that require voter ID. And many college students who don't have a driver's license - in Texas, again, for example, you can use a hunting license, but you can't use a student ID, which is just absolutely insane when you think about it. But that's the law. And that makes it really hard for young people who don't have that opportunity to go get a driver's license, for example, to go vote and exercise their constitutional right. There are a lot of challenges. There are also systems that make it incredibly complicated to request an absentee ballot, so, if you can’t go vote for whatever reason, you simply aren't allowed to vote because you can’t vote in any other way. And again, that is, in my opinion, something that's deeply anti-democratic. And we should be instituting systems that make it easier, not more difficult.
MB: Is there a way to get an ID that would work across basically any state that wouldn't be subject to these kinds of minute laws - such as whether a hunter’s license would work versus a student ID - maybe an overall ID that would work in a way that young people can easily access it and that they will be able to use?
SM: I don't know if it's a specific ID. I know, for example, in the For the People Act that is currently being debated in the Senate, there is a requirement that an ID be present. There are a lot of states that require IDs, and there are a lot of other states that do not, so this would regulate that. It would require an ID in every state, but it also includes a list of IDs that are acceptable, including a student ID, for example. It's not exactly something that would fix the problem entirely, but it would make it a lot easier, specifically for young people who might not have a driver's license or a hunting license, to go and use their student ID as proof of identity.
MB: Okay. So keeping voters engaged, even after the voting process is over, is a big goal that you have with Voters of Tomorrow. What does that look like to you? How do you go about keeping young voters engaged?
SM: Yeah. So all three goals are equally related. And that means that in order to make sure that young voters are engaged, they have to be educated. And in order to make sure they're represented, they have to be engaged. The way we do that is we try to use those in a circular fashion, and that allows us to keep voters engaged through presentation. When there's a lot of elections, we're making sure that every person that we know is calling the representatives and is making their voices heard about different issues. We're sending out petitions that we then deliver to elected officials to make sure that they know we're against their stance on different issues. We're also encouraging them to take action and join protests and go out and do voter registration drives. As we start heading into another election cycle, we encourage our chapters to host candidate forums and bring candidates to their school so that people in their schools can hear from candidates directly. We encourage them to organize town halls with their elected officials, and make sure that the elected official is held accountable by their young constituents. There are a lot of ways that we do this. I think that those are probably the principal ones, but they're definitely not the only ones.
MB: Okay. So one of the initiatives that I saw on your website that I found really interesting was your “Prom at the Polls” initiative. Can you tell us what the inspiration behind that was? And what exactly did it look like?
SM: I graduated from high school in 2020. As we were heading into the election, Alyssa Milano brought me and some other young activists together to kind of think through some ideas about how to get the young voters out to vote. What we realized is that a bunch of us had graduated in 2020 and none of us had a prom because of the pandemic. And we knew a lot of people who had been really excited to go to prom and had purchased their outfits and had some cute dresses and some cute, slick suits. And then, they were now stored in a closet and would not be used. What we realized is we could tap into that energy and take the prom to the polls, and encourage young people to ask their friends to go vote with them, and do a prom proposal to get other young people to go with them. We encouraged them to go dressed up and get the use out of those outfits that they purchased. And also just bring attention to it, because if I was personally driving out to a polling station, and I see a bunch of high schoolers dressed up, I would be more likely to stop by and go see what's going on. And if I'm there, why not vote? That was the idea behind it. It was really successful. We ended up getting participation from the Grey's Anatomy cast and the cast of Station 19. We had Yvette Nicole Brown ask Chris Evans to go to Prom at the Polls with her, which I personally found incredible. The highlight of my life was when Mark Hamill participated. I'm a huge Star Wars fan. And [to hear] Luke Skywalker say that he would go to the polls with Harley Quinn and Tara Strong was the best thing that I could ever ask for. That was amazing.
MB: Yeah, that's incredible. It sounds like you built a big movement behind that. Do you see [Voters of Tomorrow] recreating that in the future as well?
SM: Yeah, so Voters of Tomorrow is planning on doing a sort of sequel; it's not going to be the same, as we're hoping that by the time the midterms come around, we won't be in a pandemic anymore, at least not in this stage of the comeback. But we are planning on doing some other school-centered events. And we're going to be announcing some details on those soon. Stay tuned!
MB: That sounds exciting. I want to switch gears a little bit and kind of go into your background. You emigrated from Mexico to the United States. And you mentioned this a little bit at the beginning. I want to hear a little bit more about what the process was like for you to become engaged in the American political scene. You're studying political science now at university. What was it about American politics that really engaged you specifically?
SM: In Mexico and middle school, I used to do Model United Nations. I've always been a big United Nations and international politics fan. Once I got to the U.S., I realized the larger ramifications that the Trump administration was having on international relations. There was a lot of talk about him exiting NATO, and talk about him potentially leaving the United Nations altogether. That, to me, as someone who had been a team member in the MUN international relations team for a bit, that was deeply concerning. That kind of piqued my ears and pulled me into the absolute clusterfuck that you guys had going on here. As I got more and more engaged, that's when I started realizing the deeply xenophobic policies that were being implemented with things like the Muslim ban. That's really what triggered my political nerd to come into full fruition and to start tweeting out about politics, and that kind of just led down a rabbit hole that led me to where I am right now. It's been an interesting process.
MB: Yeah for sure. You're new to university right now. You're studying political science and mechanical engineering?
MB: You’re rather young and you've already started this huge project, what is next for you, then? Where do you see yourself going into the future?
SM: I actually don't know. At Voters of Tomorrow, it was always meant to be youth-led. At some point, over the next few years, I will age out of Voters of Tomorrow. And at this point, I've been so focused on building up the organization into something that can stand by itself. And we're slowly getting there. And it's becoming more and more so, and so that I really don't know what comes next. I'm really excited to see where I'm headed and how I can keep getting people involved at every age and every aspect of life. Everyone should have their voices heard.
MB: Absolutely. You've also interned for several politicians, and you've talked to some of them on your podcast as well. I'm curious what discussions you've had with these elected officials, especially in regards to how they engage young voters.
SM: Yeah. So I've interned with politicians at the state and local level. What I've found is that if youth interest is low about federal politics, youth interest about state and local politics is even lower. What we've figured out is that I should help these politicians and these elected officials make that outreach to their local young constituents and make sure that they knew that they had a resource in that election. For example, with my state senator, the way that this translated was, we brought him to our high school, we had him give a speech about how he got involved in politics and how he became an elected official. In that same event, we registered voters. We gave them a hype speech about how we could improve things. And then right after that, we went around the room to register voters. And that proved to be really successful. We registered about 200 voters there, and the event had about 220 people. So that is a very good ratio. That's one action at the local level. I mostly talked with the candidate about how he could improve his outreach and that not many young people knew anything about city council or anything that happened at city council. I encouraged him to go into high schools and talk with high schoolers, and to make sure that they understood all the important work that happens at the city level. If there is a car crash at an intersection, because there is not a stop sign or a traffic light, that is not something that your congressman or your senator can fix. That is something that the city council has to fix. And that is something that many people simply do not understand, and the media, in general, has created this weird idea of an all powerful mayor, that is simply not real. We wanted to make sure that people understood all the actions that they can take, and also just how accessible a lot of these people are. Other people think about politicians - they think about all these security guards and being guarded by the Secret Service. And for most politicians, that is simply not the case. It's very easy to go and get in touch. I know a lot of local and state politicians that will literally give you their cell phone number and give you their home address and say, “if you ever need something. come knock on my door”. That is, at the end of the day, how stuff actually gets done. You talk to people, you understand their needs. And you talk to them, you engage them. So that's part of what I talked to them about and what I did while I was interning at their office.
MB: Bringing the local aspect of politics back into the public view, because it can be very easily over-stripped by what's happening at the federal level, which is so far out of reach for a lot of people I imagine.
SM: I mean, I think the issue is that the politics at the federal level is just so shiny; it attracts so much attention and you see it in the news, you see it in the headlines, you see the drama. It just brings your attention towards it. People have to remember that that is not all there is. There are state politics and local politics. And honestly, as important as federal politics are, they're not the things that impact your day-to-day life, at least not in the day-to-day political conversation. I think that having a discussion about how to improve a state school system, for example, is something that is a lot more tangible to a young voter in any state. Being a part of that conversation, and having their voices represented there is definitely essential to any democratic society. That is something that we encourage, and that is something that I talked to them about on outreach.
MB: Young people are often on the move, though. A lot of young people are in college in a different state. They're not feeling completely tied back to where their home area is, do you find that also to be kind of an issue with young people? Just on the move, you know, not just geographically but career wise, just in general with their personal lives? Do you find that to be difficult for them to engage into that local scene?
SM: That's an issue at every level, actually. The reason is, mostly just because a lot of these people simply do not have the time, or the energy, or the ability to even think about a lot of these abstract concepts. I hear a lot on Twitter, for example, about, “oh, how can these people, these young people not be tuned in, we're in danger of losing our democracy”. And I always go back to, yes, but that is something that you and I can think of, because we have the privilege to do that. A college student who is living in their car because they can't afford tuition, or they can't afford to stay in the dorms, and who is struggling to figure out where they're getting their food from for the next week - thinking about something as abstract as democracy is not going to be high on their priority list. What those people want to see is action that will tangibly improve their lives. That's why I keep encouraging, and Voters of Tomorrow are encouraging politicians at every level, to pass legislation that will have a tangible impact on people's lives. As important as it is to protect democracy - and I think it is definitely one of our top areas right now - most voters simply won't feel that. If you want to engage people, you need to do stuff that they will feel in their day to day lives. So passing something like free community college, like California did, or passing something, such as forgiving student loans, helping have affordable housing, all those things are something that will directly impact people. These people will feel that in their lives and it will directly improve their lives, and then people will feel like they need to vote to make sure that those [things] stays in effect, that they remain a thing.
MB: That makes complete sense. And that, like you said, that goes to all demographics and all age levels. When you're living in the moment, you're looking for policies that directly impact your life and improve your life. Oftentimes, you don't have the brain capacity to think about these abstract things like democracy, which are important, but if you're just an average person living out your life, you're looking at, what are they doing? What are the politicians doing to actually improve my life, and the lives around me?..For young people who are a bit more engaged at the political level, what are ways that they can engage politically? I mean, outside of voter registration and voting? What are other political acts you can do as a young person?
S:: I definitely think that making sure you stay in touch with your elected official is the most important part of engagement that anyone can do. How it looks varies a lot. It can be calling every day or calling every week, making sure that your senator’s staff knows who you are and becomes tired of hearing your voice. That is something that I personally like doing. There are other ways to do it. And we encourage people to go - and this is not exactly something we can do right now during the pandemic, but hopefully after we're done with this - to go to offices of elected officials and request a meeting. If you're protesting something, to organize a sit-in in their offices or to go with a delegation to lobby for change that you want to see. We encourage people to do demonstrations outside of important buildings. Our Texas chapter, for example, went outside the Texas State Capitol to protest SB 8 and how it infringes on a woman's right to choose. There are a lot of ways to stay engaged. We personally think that making sure your voice is heard is the most important one. And I personally believe that. That is what I want to encourage everyone who is even slightly politically inclined to go do.
MB: Do the Voters of Tomorrow have any big projects in mind for 2022?
SM: We’re having a huge voter mobilization apparatus. We're slowly building that and we are running out of time for it, so we're starting to put more and more resources into it. We're developing chapters in as many states as we can, we are making sure that those chapters have every resource that they need to mobilize their communities, and that our state districts have what they need to coordinate those actions. We're going to be working with our endorsed candidates to make sure that they recognize Gen Z’s voting power, and that they listen to their priorities. We're going to be moving around a candidate’s pledge, candidates who would pledge to listen to Gen Z, and to at least consider the Gen Z agenda. Like I said, we still have a big event planned to serve as a sort of follow up Prom at the Polls. I can't give details yet, but we will have those soon.
MB: Awesome. All right, we'll be looking out for them. The United States Youth Forum organization has a similar vision to what you guys are doing, in that we're also a youth-led organization, and we also want to see our voices represented. I want to ask, what could we do to better engage young people and encourage them to vote?
SM: Yeah, I think you are doing really important work. I think content creation is definitely one of the aspects that we would like to be more involved in, but we simply don't have the resources for. The fact that you are doing that is incredibly important. It's filling such an important gap. I always say that the way people fall into the alt-right is because there is a lack of sane, pro-democracy content on social media. You have your Charlie Kirk's creating some batshit crazy videos, you have Ben Shapiro and logical fallacies helping mislead people. You have Jordan Peterson making arguments that are blatantly false, but he speaks in an authoritative voice, so people believe it. There is really nothing like that in what I call the pro-democracy coalition at this point - we can also just call it the sane-world. The fact that you guys are doing that is incredibly important. It fills a void that I don't think many people even realize exists. And it's probably helping save a lot of people from falling down the fascist rabbit hole. I also think just having that content that is an accessible entry point to politics, is the best way to get people engaged. People can't be part of politics if they feel politics is something that is unattainable or inaccessible. The fact that you can go scroll on Tik Tok or go to a website and listen to a podcast. That is the lowest possible barrier of entry, and something that will help young people understand that politics is something that they see everyday, and that they participate in, in their daily lives. And that keeps people engaged. I think you guys are doing an amazing job, and you should keep doing what you're doing.
MB: Thank you. Yeah, this is very important, to have young people at the front and center of presenting information to their peers, so that their peers feel like they have people who understand their own struggles and what they're going through to educate them. I think it's very important. Another question I had is, what are ways that people can support Voters of Tomorrow in their work specifically?
SM: We're going to be releasing very shortly, a volunteer application for some of our older supporters that might want to help turnout young voters in the midterm elections. That will be out shortly. We're also always looking for young organizers, young activists to join our national team or to go and lead either state districts or school chapters. That is the best way to be involved because at the end of the day, local chapters are the backbone of Voters of Tomorrow. They are our ears and eyes on the ground, they do the organizing work and heavy lifting, and they understand their communities better than we ever could. If that is something that anyone listening is interested in doing, please just go to votersoftomorrow.org and sign up. We'll be more than glad to have you. Even if you don't have any organizing experience, the key to Voters of Tomorrow is that it is an organization by young people, for young people. And we love having people who realize that politics is a thing in their lives, who want to be involved. Come and join us. And we are more than happy to help guide you into that space.
MB: Absolutely. Before we end the interview, I want to ask if there's anything you feel is really important to share, something maybe young people should know about the upcoming election, or something they should know about when registering to vote in general, or about Voters of Tomorrow?
SM: I think just highlighting the importance of the 2022 midterms. I think, if you're listening to this, that it's very likely that you are aware of everything that went down on January 6 last year, it is almost the one year anniversary of it. And we know that there were several things that played out that day. We obviously had the insurrection at the Capitol. That was the violence from the lower-laddered people who wanted to carry out a coup. We also had people at the higher levels who were planning out another coup, this one in a semi-legal way, to basically invalidate the will of the voters, and install someone that lost the election as president. The fact that that didn't happen was very heavily dependent on the fact that they did not have the votes in Congress to make it happen. As you go and prepare to vote in the midterm elections, I think it is very important to keep in mind that the people who you vote for could very well be the last firewall protecting the US from an authoritarian leader. I just want to make sure that everyone has that in mind when casting a ballot, and that you're just voting for people who support democracy, even if they don't support your specific policies or they don’t support my specific policies, even if I don't like these people. But they have to be people who support the Constitution and who support the democratic transfer of power. Keep that in mind. Make sure you know if you're voting for and make sure you don't just fill in the ballot at random, because these things matter. We very much don't want to live in an autocracy.
MB: A follow up question for that. Is there a way for voters to know which candidates are specifically supportive of our democratic process and our electoral process?
SM: Voters of Tomorrow is going to be releasing a guide for most federal offices and governor offices. We will be issuing endorsements and supporting candidates for democracy, even if they don't personally align with what we believe in. As long as they support core democratic values, they can count on us, in that we will help them defeat any fascist opponents. There's also a lot of other resources. If you're looking at Republicans in particular, for example, I think the Republican Accountability Project has an amazing guide that grades every current Republican member of Congress and whether they supported Trump's attempts to steal the election or not, and whether they've supported attempts to hold him and people who support him accountable. I believe their website is accountability.gop, if that is something that you're interested in. We'll have more resources on that as we head into the midterms.
MB: Fantastic. Would you have anything to say to anybody who might be cautious or worried about the electoral process in general, the integrity of it, or any other worries or concerns they might have?
SM: I think it is important to highlight that we are living in a very perilous time for democracy. But that does not mean that democracy has failed. We saw in 2020, that the institutions and the systems meant to protect democracy held. And the reason that happened is mainly because so many people voted. If the margins had been smaller, if turnout had not been as high as it was, we could have had a very different result. If you keep making your voice heard, and you keep voting, and you keep making sure that you hold your elected officials accountable, democracy will survive. I also think it is very important to make sure that our elected officials are taking action to support and protect democracy. If that is something that you're worried about, please, call your senators and ask them to support the Freedom to Vote Act, previously the People Act and to pass them in any way necessary, even if that means altering senate rules to avoid a filibuster. I think it is very important to highlight that democracy itself is more important than any archaic Senate rule. So just again, keep it in mind as you go forward, and make sure you're holding your elected officials accountable and making sure that they know what you support.
MB: All right, well on that action item, we’ll end the interview, thank you again so much for joining me here. I really appreciate you taking the time.
SM: I appreciate you inviting me. Thank you.