Most under-30s in the US do not vote. However, this year, in a contest between two septuagenarians, experts predict that a record number of younger Americans would cast ballots — a development that could tip the result of the US presidential election on Nov. 3.
With universities closed and millions at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, innovative virtual campaigns are using social media influencers, TikTok dances, video games and Zoom talks, as well as text messages and calls, to mobilize young voters.
Singers Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Billie Eilish and Cardi B are also encouraging them to have their say.
Eighteen-to-29-year-olds represent about 20 percent of the US electorate, but just half of them cast ballots when US President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
“We have the most impactful vote in the US, but a lot of us don’t know that,” said Caitlin Upkong, a 19-year-old student from Michigan who participates in the New Voters Project, a non-partisan group present on more than 100 university campuses.
“I’ve met people who think their voices didn’t matter,” she added.
Photo: AFP / NASA
About 63 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 say that they would vote in the upcoming election, up from 47 percent four years ago, a recent Harvard University poll showed.
That surge is expected to help tip the balance in favor of Democratic presidential candidate former US vice president Joe Biden in bellwether states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona.
Sixty percent of younger people surveyed in the poll said that they would vote for Biden. As most younger people identify with progressive causes such as gun control and fighting climate change, Democrats generally spend more effort getting their vote than Republicans.
NextGen America is a progressive group working to mobilize voters in 11 battleground states. Founded by billionaire Tom Steyer, who ran in the Democratic primary elections earlier this year, it aims to reach 4.5 million people.
In Pennsylvania, which Trump won by 44,000 votes in 2016, NextGen America’s state director Larissa Sweitzer said that her team has spoken to 50,000 young voters who have pledged to cast their ballots, including 22,000 who have registered since the last election.
“We have so much power going into this election. Young people are already voting at higher rates that we’ve seen before,” the 27-year-old said, referring to early voting statistics.
The group has recruited 3,000 online influencers with millions of followers in battleground states. It has also organized a virtual rally on the viral video game Animal Crossing, virtual drag shows centered on LGBTQ politics and online forums on various topics.
“The Biden campaign has had to get very creative. It’s a challenge,” said Tom Bonier, chief executive officer of TargetSmart, a polling group.
The creativity was highlighted this week when 31-year-old US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opened an account on Twitch, a platform that broadcasts video games live, and invited young people to play with her.
Johanna Mudry, Kentucky, New York and Pennsylvania state director of the Campus Election Engagement Project, another group mobilizing student voters, said that the virtual campaigns are gaining traction with a generation rarely off their cell phones.
She is mentoring 36 activists, including Rania Zakaria, a 20-year-old finance student at the University of Pennsylvania who is one of 15 million Americans to have turned 18 since the last election.
Zakaria, part of the Penn Leads the Vote initiative, a non-partisan program encouraging voter engagement, said that building a network of student voters has not been easy due to campus quarantines, with lots of students suffering from “Zoom fatigue.”
“People are tired of just getting on a call, you know, with 20 plus different people and just like sitting there staring at the screen all day,” she said. “[But] there’s so many people that are supportive of our cause. And I think that’s what keeps me going.”
However, the isolation and loneliness that many students are feeling due to no in-person classes and a lack of campus parties might actually help fuel turnout.
“Because students are so isolated right now we find they are really receptive to someone reaching out to them and caring whether or not they are voting this year,” said Sarah Eagan, a 23-year-old activist with NextGen Pennsylvania.
Emma Rowland, political director of March For Our Lives, a student-led movement supporting gun legislation, has been working to boost turnout in the battleground state of Arizona. The 20-year-old said that Trump’s handling of the pandemic as an election issue itself is added incentive for new voters.
“Young people are now realizing: ‘Maybe I should go vote because also it can improve my quality of life and make sure I am not stuck inside for another seven months,’” she said.
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