Each major election year brings efforts to increase turnout among young voters. But since 2020, a Maine organization has done more than encourage teens to visit the polls: It has taught students how to work them.

Youth Work Makes the Booth Work gives students the opportunity to play a direct role in the local democratic process, according to co-founder Emanuel Pariser.

“We really don’t give teenagers enough responsibility in the civic life of our communities,” said Pariser, who also co-founded the Maine Academy of Natural Science in Hinckley. “Here’s a wonderful chance for everybody to see how competent and engaged teenagers can be in helping us to solve some of our most pressing problems.”

Pariser came up with the idea for Youth Work in 2020 after considering how the pandemic might impact poll workers, who tend to be senior citizens.


“Those folks were going to be the most at risk for contracting the virus,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Oh, this is a perfect time for young people to come in and help out.’ ”

He recruited a team of adults to oversee the organization and connected with other outreach groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to find students who were interested in getting involved in the fall election.


“I feel like youth, for a lot of issues, is an untapped resource,” said Youth Steering Committee Member Vivian Burnham, who was a senior at Marshwood High School in November 2020. “Youth Work Makes the Booth Work gave us a meaningful way to make change in our community.”

Burnham and her fellow committee members reached out to their local election boards to find ways to help run the election, including working the polls.

Since then, the group has continued to build connections with teachers and government officials, Burnham said. The goal is to “demystify” the democratic process by introducing students to accessible, teen-friendly sources of nonpartisan election information.

Besides speaking at events like the Waynflete Youth Summit, the Youth Work team has hosted several roundtable discussions where educators from around the state have shared ways to make civics classes engaging.

Yet according to David Barham, a humanities teacher at the Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport, the Youth Work students have stood out mostly for their ability to motivate their peers to get involved.

“I had always thought of this particular high school as fairly sleepy in terms of politics and current events,” Barham said. But that changed after committee members like Finn Veerkamp began rallying his classmates to sign on as poll workers.

“Suddenly, there were other students looking at each other going, ‘I want to learn more about that,’ ” Barham said. “What (Youth Work members) were able to bring is the feeling that you have a role to play, your voice is important.”

The group, which is accepting applications for its Youth Steering Committee, is still determining its next steps. For Pariser, it has already proved true his original theory: Teenagers have a valuable role to play in democracy.

“These young people have been just amazing to work with,” he said. “In a time when things are pretty shaky and insecure, with lots of difficult things going on, this group has given me a lot of hope about the future.”

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