Tallahassee, FL — I was sitting in the audience of a committee meeting at the Florida Senate when I got the first text from a friend saying there was a shooting at my high school, with my sister inside. I was interning at a lobbyist firm at the time, where I continue to work, having graduated the prior year from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
You might be able to imagine how earth-shattering it was to get that first text. I raced back to my office and, in what was certainly the most surreal and utterly horrifying experience of my life, I watched the shooting unfold on live TV, praying that my sister had either made it out or was safe somewhere inside. Thankfully, she was, but not everyone was so lucky. Seventeen of my community members were murdered in cold blood, and that is something from which it is impossible to completely move on.
In the months that followed the shooting, the March for Our Lives movement launched this country further forward than I could ever have imagined after a mass shooting. Just in my lifetime, I have experienced the aftermaths of rampages at Sandy Hook Elementary, Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, a Colorado movie theater, and the Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas. But this time – this time felt different, and not just because it hit so close to home.
I had co-founded the Politics Club at Stoneman Douglas before the massacre (David Hogg even ran to be our vice president at the time). I was used to political activism, and after the shooting, I felt the need to do something – anything. So, I led the organizing of the March for Our Lives in Tallahassee.
As a next step, with a core member of the March’s organizing team, I co-founded Students Demand Action at Florida State University, where I’m now a sophomore, to advocate for gun sense policies. (We’re loosely affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety.) I walk around campus with an #MSDStrong bracelet, just low-key enough to show my solidarity without exclaiming to everyone that I attended Stoneman Douglas or that I live in Parkland. To me, getting that balance right is crucial to ensure I never use my proximity to the shooting in a way that could trivialize the tragedy that happened there.
Not to mention, real change is made not through bracelets or T-shirts, but through action.
As the midterm elections approach, students who were a part of the Parkland-led protests are shifting our focus to getting out the youth vote, which has long been a goal of mine. But this is the first time some of my peers are paying attention to any election at all, let alone midterms many in our demographic usually ride out.
In Florida at least, we’re seeing encouraging signs. According to the Tampa Bay Times, voter registration of Floridians between 18 and 25 catapulted by 41 percent following the shooting. According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, thousands of Floridians between the ages of 17 and 21 have registered to vote each month since the shooting.
Meanwhile, in Florida’s primary election on August 28, youth turnout was far higher than ever before. According to McClatchy DC, 10 percent more people voted in Alachua County, where the University of Florida is located, than in 2014’s primaries. Tallahassee, which is home to both FSU and Florida A & M University, had precincts with five times the turnout compared to 2014. Some even credit the primary win of gubernatorial candidate and Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum in part to his appeal to young voters mobilized by the student-led activism out of Parkland.
I’ve personally seen how many new young voters there are in Florida. As part of Students Demand Action, I went out with a clipboard to register voters. Most students we asked were already registered to vote, and the small number who weren’t usually excitedly signed up.
This election is by far the most important midterm election in my lifetime. It could well make or break our democracy, and will determine who will be drawing congressional and legislative districts in almost every state. The outcome will either allow for the loosening of gun laws, or for the creation of common-sense restrictions that can save lives.
Nothing could have prepared me for the experience of not knowing whether my sister would survive the mass shooting at my high school—or finding out that others in my community did not. But as someone drawn to political involvement since I was too young to vote, I can finally take my own voice—and get as many fellow students as I can—to the polls.
Matthew Harris is a sophomore at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He co-organized the Midterm Music Fest get-out-the-vote music festival there on October 20, 2018.