Opinion | How Democrats Should Increase the Youth Vote

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Yaniliz Rosario, 19, was making Snapchat playlists for a watch party for an event that some may assume teenagers don’t typically get excited about — a school board meeting. High schoolers logged on, flooding the chat box on Zoom with questions, as Ms. Rosario curated song suggestions and gave them shout-outs.

Ms. Rosario is a youth organizer with Leaders Igniting Transformation, or LIT, a Wisconsin organization led by youth of color that focuses on advocacy, organizing and leadership development. But instead of focusing on just registering young people to vote, organizers like her are engaging them to become involved in every aspect of democracy — showing up at school board meetings, recruiting voters, canvassing and most recently helping to persuade the Milwaukee school board to end its contract with the Police Department, after more than two years of advocacy by LIT.

And the way they do this is also how Democrats can win in November and beyond — peer-to-peer, sustained investment, going where young people are scrolling and connecting voting to issues that feel personal — according to about a dozen young organizers I interviewed who worked for organizations that are part of the Alliance for Youth Action, a network of groups focused on local organizing. It’s not just about elections. It’s a lifestyle.

Democrats are obsessed with getting young people to the polls. But youth turnout doesn’t always materialize the way the party expects. In the 2020 primaries, the youth vote was considered “flat or declining” compared with the turnout for the 2016 primaries. While some expressed skepticism about the youth vote after the failure of an army of young voters to turn out for Bernie Sanders, no single candidate alone can thwart systemic, significant barriers to voting.

It’s easy to ding young people for apathy. But it’s harder to examine and correct everything getting in the way, like voter suppression, a lack of civic education and plain old outreach. According to a January survey of registered voters under 35 by the Alliance for Youth Action, 80 percent of young voters report being extremely likely to vote in November, but 67 percent report never having talked to a campaign representative on the phone. Nearly half say they haven’t received an email from a campaign. That group also found in a poll of registered voters under 40 in battleground states that only 11 percent of young Black voters report having been contacted by the Democratic Party or the Biden campaign through digital ads, compared with nearly half of white voters.

The progressive political industry consistently throws billions of dollars toward TV ads every election cycle but only a negligible amount toward sustained grass-roots organizing — even though data from 2016 and 2018 show that organizing increases voter turnout more than any other outreach method, including mail, TV and digital advertisements, and twice as much as contact from a stranger.

“Politicians, political parties, funders, need to actively engage young people year round,” said Lamonté Moore, 28, LIT’s college director. “Not just when it’s beneficial with them.”

Conservatives are already far ahead in their outreach. Conservative youth groups received half a billion dollars more in contributions from 2008 to 2014 than progressive youth organizations, according to a 2017 report by Generation Progress, which looked at tax data.

“As a young person I have a level of cultural fluency, a shared language that I can use without my interactions feeling artificial or contrived,” explained Maya Muwanga, 18, an organizer with New Era Colorado. Because she’s not so far removed in age from high school students, she can imagine the kinds of questions they might ask or issues that might resonate. “Seeing someone visibly younger encouraging voting and working to register young people gets the wheels turning about how this issue might be relevant and not just something for adults,” she added.

In Wisconsin, college fellows from LIT create an Instagram Live series that explores current issues, like prison abolition and immigration. The group also connects civic leadership to pop culture with “Black Hogwarts,” an organizing training that lets young people select their “houses” based on issues they’re interested in and provides leadership development to expand political education.

Many of these groups equitably pay young people to organize and canvass their communities, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it builds their leadership skills. When grass-roots groups invest in young people, Mr. Moore said, they take pride in their work and want to come back and work again. And paying young people for their effort and time also enables students without parental support or from low-income families to participate, as Ms. Rosario pointed out.

Young organizers are calling on political leaders to make investments in this voting bloc, too.

Youth voter turnout in Texas tripled between 2014 and 2018, and Move Texas registered 30,000 new voters under 30 in 2018. “But the question is, will campaigns make the investment to turn those young people out?” asked Charlie Bonner, 24, the communications director for Move Texas. According to a February poll of Texans under 40 conducted by Circle, a research organization focused on youth civic engagement, 66 percent of them, and 75 percent of young Latinos had not heard from a campaign this cycle. And that’s a problem. “If you don’t have candidates up and down the ballot that are willing to make an investment, that are willing to speak to the issues that young people are facing, then we have a self-fulfilling prophecy about the youth vote,” Mr. Bonner said. Instead, the political industry should “be playing a longer game here that is about fundamentally changing the electorate,” he added.

Even within different strategies, issues are at the heart of this organizing. Young people are complex, issue-based voters. In 2018, only 56 percent of people ages 18 to 24 chose to affiliate with the Democratic or Republican Party, according to Circle. And a report from the Alliance for Youth Action that found 44 percent of voters under 25 identify as independent, and young people are more likely to vote based on issues and values than for other reasons, including supporting a particular candidate or opposing a party. Young people have expressed that true engagement means investing in young people as leaders and amplifying work already being done in their communities, centering social justice and intersectionality, and meeting young people where they are.

“There are young people who are frustrated with the system,” said Rahhel Haile, 28, with the Minnesota Youth Collective. When she and her peers talk to young people about voting, their conversations are rooted in issues young people care about, including housing. It’s about “demonstrating that voting is a small tool in that toolbox,” she said.

When I spoke to Ms. Haile, the Minnesota Youth Collective was responding to needs of Black organizers protesting police brutality and racial inequity after the George Floyd killing and amplifying calls to defund the police. The group was busy calling for donations for medical supplies, hand sanitizer and food. If it doesn’t sound like a trendy get-out-the-vote strategy, that’s because it isn’t. Winning the youth vote can’t be a gimmick that pops up every election year. Connecting young voters to the issues in their communities, and showing how they can have an impact on those issues, is the game changer, especially since Minnesotans under 30 saw the biggest increase in turnout of any age group in 2018.

“We always say this jokingly, but I think it’s really real,” Ms. Haile said. “Young people can really smell the B.S.”

Rainesford Stauffer (@Rainesford) is the author of the forthcoming book “An Ordinary Age.”

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