Experts say young adults can be the group that makes a difference in coming elections. But given their history of low participation, many organizations are searching for new strategies to reach them and get them to vote.
Nearly 24 million 18-29-year-olds voted in the 2016 presidential election, only about half of those who were eligible, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Of all voters, only 40 percent were people of color.
State efforts are underway both to get young people pre-registered and to get registered young people to the voting booth on Tuesday. Historically, young people and people of color have made up the smallest percentage of voters in elections. In communities like Boyle Heights, efforts are focused on educating residents about the impact of voting and helping them overcome fears.
Nineteen-year-old Boyle Heights resident Citlalli Guevara-Hernandez voted for the first time in the primaries last spring. She is now a full-time student at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
She registered through a link on a friend’s Instagram post about voting and was excited to cast her ballot for the first time. At the same time, she understands why a lot of her peers do not vote.
“I think it just comes down to people not having hope, so they don’t make it a priority,” she says. “They think, ‘This country kind of screwed me over, and everyone hates my generation, so why should I care about what happens?’” she said.
Organizers say candidates and elected officials don’t expect young people to vote, so they don’t speak to issues that matter to them and that might bring them to the polls.
“I think there is a lack of engagement coming from the top– campaigns, candidates–to pay attention to their issues, and it seems really obvious that if nobody is asking you to vote, you’re not going to,” says Jenn Tolentino, director of policy and civic technology at Rock the Vote, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts voter drives, sponsors voter education and runs ads encouraging young people to vote.
Some say the current administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric and decisions, such as ending DACA and separating families, have led to young people becoming more politically aware and involved.
“I think a lot of people following the November 2016 election woke up and realized that elections really matter, and if you don’t vote, certain things can change and that every single vote and every single election actually makes a difference,” says Tolentino.
The challenges, she says, are capitalizing on the energy of protests, organizing around issues and getting the young into the voting booths.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle to make sure that they actually vote in November,” says Tolentino.
A new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic shows only 28 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 are absolutely certain to vote in the November election. This compares with 74 percent of seniors.
YVote, a coalition of non-profit organizations around California, focuses on youth civic engagement. Its pre-registration effort targets young people and helps them understand the voting process.
In California, pre-registration efforts have been on the rise with more than 100,000 16- and 17- year-olds pre-registered as of April 2018. Requirements for pre-registering include being a U.S. citizen, being mentally competent and not being in prison or on parole. Once someone pre-registers, he or she is automatically registered to vote upon turning 18.
David Aguila, a fellow at YVote and Inner City Struggle, leads engagement efforts at six Eastside high schools and East Los Angeles College. Aguila says while young people are beginning to be more politically involved, they sometimes have trouble seeing the connection between being involved and voting.
“It’s sort of disheartening to see, because they are going through this great effort to show this political action by going out, marching and standing up for what they believe in. But they don’t see the connection between that and voting,” says Aguila.
When an election gets closer, YVote does a “voter contact program” where they connect with the young people who registered to remind them to go ahead and vote. They also mobilize young people on Election Day, using approaches proven successful in connecting with a younger generation.
“We call folks on their cell phones, rather than a landline,” says Agulia. “We use texting as a way to go ahead and mobilize voters. We use social media to go ahead and make contacts with these voters.”
Aileen Arcero,18, began volunteering at YVote after learning at a presentation at Oscar de La Hoya High School that the majority of people of color don’t vote. Some of the work she’s done included calling registered voters and reminding them to vote. She thinks it’s important to vote because “you can be a voice for other people” who can’t vote, she said. “You can make changes.”
When dealing with immigrants, organizers say they have to work with them to overcome fears of sharing their information with the federal government, even if they are U.S. citizens. This is another area where educating youth becomes paramount.
“The most important thing we can do is to articulate how important it is for them to vote, especially if they have family that are not documented, “ says Aguila.
Guevara-Hernandez says she and her family understand the importance of voting. They read over pamphlets, research candidates and go together to vote.
“It really makes a difference in the long run, and it’s a duty we all have as citizens,” says Guevara-Hernandez. “Your vote might not be the deciding one, but if you are voting and telling your friends you voted, you might start them voting. The next thing you know, you influenced 20 people. And maybe those 20 might be what it takes to make a difference.”