After witnessing several weeks of protests – and sometimes violent clashes with police, I am curious whether that energy translates into votes. Most protestors are in their late teens and 20s, an age that typically does not show well on Election Day.
Will summer protests deliver young voters in November?
Young protesters vote
The 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, where 14 students and 3 educators were killed, sparked nationwide youth demonstrations for gun control. The considerable media attention raised awareness of young activists and their value to political organizations.
- According to CIRCLE, a research group focused on young people’s civic engagement, 2018 marked a substantial surge in youth participation in demonstrations. Party and candidate campaigns took notice, targeting demonstrators for vote mobilization drives.
- It worked. Those 18-24 year olds involved in the post-shooting demonstrations were far more likely to vote in the 2018 midterm than the uninvolved.
- A record high 36% of the 18-29 year old group voted. This represented a 79% increase from the 2014 figure – the single largest percentage increase for any age group.
- Now, protests against police brutality have produced a significant up-tick in youth voter registration. The week after the George Floyd’s death, Rock the Vote, an organization dedicated to registering young people, reported the most registrations in a 7 day period this year.
- Recent Pew Center Research Data shows 18-29 year olds are actively engaged in racial justice issues. Seventy-three percent reported race focused conversations with family and friends, 53% posted or shared racial equality content on social media, a remarkable 21% contributed money to an organization, 13% contacted a public official to express their opinion, and 13% attended a rally or demonstration. Across every category, younger people reported greater activity than any other age group.
In sum, it appears that March 2018 demonstrations were a catalyst for record setting youth turnout in November. And, protests this summer appear to be motivating youth in a similar fashion.
On the other hand
In 1992, the 18-29 age group set a modern turnout record for presidential elections at 52%. Barak Obama’s victory in 2008 produced the second highest turnout at 51.1%. Both elections witnessed exceptional circumstances that attracted young people – Ross Perot’s unequaled success as 3rd party candidate and Obama’s historic achievement as the first African American nominee for president.
But no other election since 1980 reached 50%. In 2016, only 47.6% of young people voted. Compare this figure to the other age groups – about 6 in 10 of the 30-44 year old group turnout, and 70% of the 45-64 and 65 plus age groups vote.
- At this stage of the campaign, Joe Biden’s support among 18-29 year olds is solid but not as strong as past Democrats . In addition, only 26% of younger voters feel favorable toward Biden and 35% unfavorable. The lack of enthusiasm combined with a strong dislike for Trump could limit turnout, or move young people to a third-party alternative. A recent poll showed 15% of registered voters under 30 preferred a third party to Trump or Biden.
- New voter registration in April dropped sharply across most states – over 70% in some key swing states. The pandemic lockdowns stifled efforts to register voters, especially younger people that often register at schools and colleges.
- While states are opening up, reports of outbreaks and a potential second wave make it difficult for campaigns to plan for conventional registration drives and door-to-door canvassing. The unusual circumstances make it even more challenging to reach first time voters and young people generally.
- Some states are encouraging vote-by-mail. However, voting-by-mail depends on people registered several weeks before Election Day. This could exclude many young people, whose turnout trends higher in states that have same day registration.
- If demonstrations fade and the spotlight turns to other pressing matters, protesters may become disillusioned and find it difficult to support conventional voting processes.
In sum, a majority of young people typically sit out presidential elections. The many problems associated with the coronavirus may reinforce this trend. Further, Joe Biden does not appear to be the sort of candidate that fuels the passions on display in streets across the nation.
The evidence from 2018 showed young demonstrators can effect change. Protests can deliver votes on Election Day. Despite the obstacles presented by the pandemic, and an uninspiring Democratic nominee, I anticipate record turnout. Like no other issues, racial injustice and police reform motivate millennials and gen Z. For this generation, 2020 represents an opportunity to make a lasting imprint on American politics.
A final caveat. Protests can inspire backlash as well. Protesters must walk a fine line. Amid nationwide protests, Nixon won the White House in 1968, and again in 1972, in part because his message of “law and order” resonated.
Mindful of this reality, former President Obama counseled the protestors about the violence that erupted in several cities.
“So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”