What do history & data tell us about the likelihood they’ll turn out?
Four million American teens will turn 18 before November 6 this year, which makes them eligible to vote in the nation’s upcoming high-stakes midterm elections. To hear them tell it, “post-millennial” high schoolers are joining forces with millennials to become the demographic group that sways elections up and down the ballot.
But will they?
If history is any guide, says Pew Research Center senior researcher Richard Fry, maybe not. “While it might be a ‘slam-dunk’ that millennials soon will be the largest generation in the electorate,” he wrote in May 2016, “it will likely be a much longer time before they are the largest bloc of voters.”
Fry was right then: 51 percent of all eligible millennial voters cast ballots in 2016 – 10 points lower than the overall turnout among older voters.
And while, Rock the Vote informs us, the millennial generation includes about as many voters as the baby boomer crowd, their numerical advantage won’t necessarily deliver more people to the polls this year, since younger voters are legendary for skipping non-presidential elections.
Except… things may be different this time around. U.S. high school and college-age citizens have become energized by several kaleidoscope-shifting phenomena – among them the events and protests sponsored by Women’s March, which seem to be spawning a new generation of American feminists; Trump’s decision to end the DACA program, which impacts millennials directly; and the many #NeverAgain gun-safety efforts launched in the wake of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting.
Gun control advocates are already busy sending voter registration birthday packets to teens in 10 states where they consider pro-gun lawmakers vulnerable, reported the Christian Science Monitor on April 12.
That campaign, “Our Lives, Our Votes,” is sponsored by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions, and two other groups. As Giffords explained to the Monitor. “America’s children took to the streets and led marches with a unified message that rang out across the country: We need a Congress that will protect us.”
Things may also be different this year because of the efforts of Rock the Vote, along with Democratic and independent activists across the country, to pre-register 17-now-but-becoming-18-year-olds so they can simply walk into their polling place on Election Day knowing they’ve joined the voter rolls.
And things may be different because party organizations and independent political action groups are perusing those voter rolls, and adding the young voters they find to targeted voter mobilization lists.
Those dynamics, coupled with the high level of opposition to Trump and the GOP among younger voters, could be just what is needed to get younger voters to the polls as never before.
According to New York Magazine, the post-millennial generation’s “diversity, tolerance and relative disdain for values rooted in conservative Christianity – is even more likely to be manifested” among today’s high school students than it is among their millennial elders.
And, reported the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute about its recent survey, “a majority of post-millennials are kids of color in 13 states and 38 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas.” They’re far more likely than their elders, the Institute explained, to believe that the federal government should address climate change, the wealthy should pay higher taxes, and gun control laws should be more strict. And 36 percent identify as “far left” or “liberal” – a big jump from the 24 percent that did so in 1997, when the first millennials started college. And more than 41 percent of women approaching college age today identify as “far left” or “liberal” – the highest number tallied since the Institute’s survey began in 1966.
So what does voter registration data tell us?
In California, more than 100,000 16-and 17-year-olds have registered to vote since a 2016 law authorizing pre-registration was enacted. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told CNN on April 9 that “the numbers keep going up. These kids know that to change the political environment and policy, they need to register to vote, and they need to vote.”
More than three-quarters of the pre-registering California teens chose either no party affiliation (44 percent) or the Democratic Party (37 percent). Just 10.3 percent registered with the GOP.
A new online system in the Golden State will soon automatically register state residents to vote on their 18th birthdays going forward, as long as they’re U.S. citizens. And 16- and 17-year-olds who obtain California driver licenses or ID cards will be automatically pre-registered – again, as long as they’re citizens (as will older Californians who get state licenses or IDs).
Next door in Arizona, the numbers are smaller but the trend’s the same. Nearly 3,000 18-year-olds have registered to vote as of April 13, 2018, compared with 1,650 during all of 2017. They include 1,292 independents, 1,129 Democrats and 468 Republicans.
And up in Washington State, Gov. Jay Inslee signed several pieces of voter access legislation in March, including one bill that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register and another that allows in-person registration on Election Day.
That brings the number of states now allowing teen pre-registration to 13, plus the District of Columbia.
So, kids, what will it be? Are you going to hit the voting booth with enough intensity to rock the nation?
We’re watching. We’re waiting. And we’re rooting for you.