Gustavo Tellez-Mendoza has tried everything to get his peers to vote. A sophomore at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he spent last summer on high school and college campuses in the Central Valley with a clipboard in hand — dancing, blasting music, and doing whatever he could to get the attention of passersby.
His goal was simple: to talk to someone long enough to ask them what issues they cared about and, hopefully, to get them to register to vote. But a lot of the time, his efforts were fruitless.
“The response was ‘I’ll wait until I’m 18’ and then when they were 18, they said, ‘I’ll wait until I’m older,’” Tellez-Mendoza said. “I would get really frustrated.”
Tellez-Mendoza’s work was part of the Central Valley Freedom Summer Project (CVFS), a non-partisan effort out of UC Santa Cruz that deploys college students each summer to mobilize their communities around grassroots causes. In particular, CVFS targets low-income youth voters in a region that has historically lacked a strong civic infrastructure.
Veronica Terriquez, director of CVFS and a professor at UC Santa Cruz, says despite the challenges some students faced, she’s noticed an unprecedented wave of energy from young people in California’s Central Valley and beyond.
“Young people today are experiencing political shock in their own short lifetimes,” Terriquez said. “They’re seeing dramatic changes in the environment, with immigration and more… and that is creating a new level of political interest.”
Following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. and divisiveness under the Trump administration, a wave of activism has signaled a forceful political enthusiasm among young people on issues like gun control, immigration, the #MeToo movement and climate change.
In the months leading up to the midterm elections, media outlets have speculated as to whether this might be the year young people show up to the polls in record numbers. Youth organizers are hopeful for high turnout on Nov. 6, having spent the last two years trying to galvanize their peers not only to show up to marches and protests but also to vote.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is the director of CIRCLE, a non-partisan think tank that focuses on civic engagement among young people. She says that while she doesn’t know what the turnout for young people will be next month, she’s optimistic that it will improve by a noticeable amount.
“The energy among young people right now is really real,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “It’s not just us getting excited about the Parkland students and voter registration numbers.”
But historically, young people have made up one of the least reliable voting groups, especially in non-presidential elections. In 2014, for example, about 20 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds voted, compared with an average voter turnout of around 36 percent.
Researchers say there are a number of reasons young people vote less frequently than their elders. Young adults move often, are faced with logistical and legal hurdles to casting their ballot, or simply don’t know how. Issues like healthcare and tax policy, which motivate some to vote, may not affect 18-29 year-olds as much as they will later in life, and many young people don’t see value in voting when their priorities aren’t always a focus for politicians.
To combat these obstacles, bands of young people across the country have taken it upon themselves to rally their peers to the polls.
Ryan Deitsch is one of them. He’s a recent graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. and a survivor of the mass shooting there that killed 17 educators and students in February.
Deitsch, 18, spent the summer on a bus full of other Parkland survivors on the Road to Change tour, a cross-country effort to register young voters and advocate for stricter gun control regulation. The group made stops from Newton, Mass. to Dallas, Texas and Oakland, Calif.
At a stop in Sioux City, Iowa, the activists spoke to a group of 10 to 12-year-olds and led them on a lobbying visit to Rep. Steve King’s office. Deitsch says that even those students, years away from voting in their first election, “knew what had to be done.”
“Even if this election doesn’t exactly change the game…these kids are going to be the ones that do,” Deitsch said. “I saw the looks in their eyes. They want to be heard.”
The Road to Change tour and this wave of youth engagement comes at a time when millennials will soon surpass Baby Boomers as the generation with the largest share of the electorate, according to Pew Research Center. But the enthusiasm around this year’s midterms may be higher than average across all age groups.
On this year’s National Voter Registration Day, more than 800,000 people updated their registrations or registered to vote for the first time – a record number, according to the non-profit that coordinates the event.
The stakes are particularly high for a midterm year, with an atmosphere of heightened partisanship and the struggle for the majority in the House and Senate riding on the outcome of several close races in states like Arizona, North Dakota, Florida, and Texas. In a number of competitive elections, the youth vote has already proven decisive.
In June, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Hers was perhaps the most celebrated victory in a wave of upsets that shared a similar narrative — relatively young progressive challengers, many who are people of color, pushing out longtime political veterans. From the primary election victories of Andrew Gillum in Florida to Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, analyses by CIRCLE show that young voters have played a critical role.
Pressley’s district, for example, has a high density of college students and saw an overall median increase of about 160 percent compared to voter turnout in 2014. The precinct covering Boston University’s Student Village, though, saw 400 percent more votes cast in the primary compared to four years ago, according to data from CIRCLE.
Those numbers are “staggering,” according to Kawashima-Ginsberg.
Still, organizers on the ground say getting that energy to translate to high youth turnout in the midterms can be challenging. A recent NPR-Marist poll found that only 60 percent of respondents age 18 to 29 said the 2018 Congressional election is “very important,” the lowest out of any age group.
But voter enthusiasm isn’t the only difficulty that concerns youth organizers: institutional barriers and lack of trust also stand in the way.
According to a recent study from Jolt, by 2022, a third of Texans eligible to vote will be under the age of 30, and the majority will be Latino. Garza is hopeful that this year, they will be a big political force in Texas.
But young Latino voters have traditionally been underrepresented compared to other young people. In 2014, around 14 percent of Latinos 18-29 years old voted in the midterms, about six percentage points lower than the age group on average.
Garza, who is from south Texas, says she grew up around people who doubted that their vote mattered. She says Latinos across the state, especially among the young Latino community, need to be convinced that their votes can make a difference.
“We have to be really realistic… and acknowledge that there is a reason that we don’t feel like our voices matter,” Garza said. “There’s a reason that we don’t feel motivated to vote, and it’s because the people that are in office and the people that are running for office still aren’t fighting for us.”
Immigrant communities, prominent in states like Texas and California, face additional challenges to voter participation that aren’t as prevalent among non-immigrant populations, according to UC Santa Cruz’s Veronica Terriquez. She says that young people whose parents aren’t eligible to vote can’t learn the habit of voting from seeing their parents do it.
“But immigrant raids and the fear of losing DACA are very real to people,” she said. “And I think that’s pretty motivating.”
With early voting already underway, voter suppression has become an increasingly urgent concern for many young organizers. Davis Hammet, 28, is the founder of Loud Light, a non-partisan organization in Kansas that focuses on civic engagement. Hammet is originally from Florida but works in Kansas in part because of what he describes as some of the strictest voting laws in the nation.
One such barrier in 2014 was a law that required Kansans to provide proof of U.S. citizenship when registering to vote. This past June, a federal judge ruled that the requirement was unconstitutional. But Hammet says other obstacles, such as voter ID laws and requiring voters to register well before Election Day, are still at play in Kansas and nationwide.
“I see a lot of the same issues and attitudes toward voting as with past years that make me wary,” he said. “It’s hard to vote when you’re 18. There’s confusion, there’s apathy… does your vote even matter?”
Madeline Ames, 20, is a student at Kansas State University and a fellow with Loud Light. She says that despite the roadblocks young voters face, she stresses a bottom line to her peers: “legislators don’t care if you don’t vote.”
With a week until the midterms, Ames and many other young organizers are watching to see if their efforts will be visible not only in turnout numbers but also in election results.
“The optimistic side of me has to say so much has happened this year… there’s no way the numbers can’t increase,” she said. “But the pessimistic side of me says the ones who were already going to vote are the ones making all the noise.”