Will First Time Voters Vote Again?

The 2018 midterm election saw a record increase in youth turnout. But will they come out again in 2020 to produce the Presidential blue wave?

(This story was written for a class entitled Narrative Journalism at Columbia University)

New York, NY — On November 6, 2018, on Election Day, I found myself in a polling station on Staten Island, a borough of New York City, famously known as the only Republican stronghold in an otherwise Democratic city.

That night, Max Rose, a 31-year-old U.S. military veteran, the Democratic candidate for Congress would defeat the incumbent Republican Congressman, Dan Donovan, and make history flipping a district that just two years earlier had overwhelmingly voted for Trump.

Speaking to voters on the Island that day, the mood was of cautious optimism. Democrats excited to vote for Rose whispered their intent. Volunteers made it clear they had voted earlier in the morning lest they be seen as skipping out on their own civic duty to help Rose get elected. The torrential downpour left a few disgruntled, but volunteers and Rose weren’t too upset. It was almost as if they were anticipating a calm after the two-year storm.

On Staten Island, as in 41 Congressional districts around the country, an unexpected blue wave swept ashore and gave congressional Democrats control of the House of Representatives. Many see this shift as a wholesale rejection of the current Administration’s policies as well as a beacon of hope, for those hoping to unseat the current President, for the upcoming Presidential election in 2020. This wave has been attributed to the record number of new voters who voted for the first time this midterm election, expanding the electorate by 50% on average across the country.

First time voters run the gamut when it comes to who they are and what motivated them to vote. They include new citizens, like Hina Shamsi, the Director of the National Security Project at the ACLU, to voters who decided to vote for the first time for a midterm election, usually only voting for Presidential elections.

First time voters also include the record number of people of color groups that voted, like Latinos. According to Pew Research Center, this year, a quarter of all Latinos in the country who voted this year cast a ballot for the first time.

While the increase in turnout overall was vast, first time young voters were a significant proportion of those who cast a ballot. In the last midterm election in 2014, young voters were 11% of the electorate compared to 13% in 2018, with 31% of voters aged 18 to 29 casting a ballot this year. Moreover, in many narrow races including in Binghamton, New York, the youth vote was the critical difference with Generation Vote calculating a 200% increase in turnout on campus and around.

So how did this happen, and will it happen again? Will young voters lead the way again producing another blue wave in 2020? To find out, I spoke to first time voters spanning Manhattan and Staten Island on the 1 train to find out why they voted and if they were likely to make voting a permanent behavior.

One such voter voter was Jose.

For Jose, 18, who chose to go only by his first name for anonymity, not voting was not an option. Jose is one of the more than 800,000 voters who registered to vote for the first time this year. Waiting for the downtown train at 116th and Broadway, Jose’s passion was clear. Jose was far from the jaded or apathetic young person publications had striven to portray. Jose might have been wary of this stereotype as he emphatically pointed to his “I VOTED” sticker on his lapel.

“I just turned 18, and just became a citizen. I’ve been telling everyone to vote, it’s so important. Especially this year,” Jose said with an excitement that made me wish I could vote.

The downpour on this Tuesday morning wasn’t going to dampen his spirit, and he was making sure it wouldn’t dissuade other young voters.

Further uptown, Andre, 26, a Harlem resident voted for the first time. Upon meeting, outside the voting station at 144th and Malcolm X Blvd, in Central Harlem, he asked me “did you vote?” I thought this a good sign, and asked him in return, to which he replied “of course, my grandmother said she’d beat me if I didn’t. But did you?” Voting here took on a public responsibility but also a familial one.

“Especially this year,” a phrase that was echoed by voters and organizations driven to registering voters alike, bolstered both the urgency of voting this year and the responsibility that came with the right. This became clear when speaking to Generation Vote’s Chief Operating Officer, Garrett Shor, himself only 22. Not a first time voter in any way, Shor said that when speaking to young voters, especially on college campuses across New York State, reminding voters of Trump’s policies and voters’ ability to change that individually with a vote, is part of the message to drive young voters to the polls. Another strategy that works is endorsing candidates that support “youth-friendly” policies(as determined by Generation Vote’s crowdsourced platform) to make it easier for new and young voters to choose between candidates.

But this year was different, Shor expressed. “Usually, we have to go out to campuses, flyer, remind people there’s an election. Especially during a midterm where people are tuned out or feel too busy to vote…don’t know how to register in a new state.” This year however, Shor was surprised, young voters came to him.

“This year many people were excited to vote…they were coming to us, instead of us going to them,” said Shor. “Usually when you go up to a young person and get them to vote, only some people know who the candidate is. This year, no person didn’t know who or what you were talking about. It’s less that they are apathetic, and more that these voters feel like they haven’t been represented.”

Perhaps, then, it was the candidates that inspired young voters to come out this year, many of them young people themselves. At 28, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest person to be elected to Congress has inspired many. So has Ilhan Omar, 36, the first Muslim-American to be elected to Congress, and even Benjamin Reynolds, who at 18 was elected in a local city council race in Johnson City, upstate New York. Shor believes that seeing young people run for office has “encouraged many young people to tune in, and see how they too can make a difference.”

Those encouraging people to vote were also young themselves. Like Garrett Shor and his team at Generation Vote who are college students currently. Or like Love Vote, an organization that matches young ineligible or immigrant communities with eligible voters who don’t vote, encouraging them to exercise their vote as a sign of love.

Not to mention the importance of Instagram posts urging people to vote by celebrities like Taylor Swift, who earlier this fall encouraged her followers, mostly young women, to elect Democrat Phil Bredesen.

Indeed a poll conducted by MTV and Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research .found that 79% of the 15–34 year olds surveyed think that leaders from their generation would do a better job running the country. “These older Congress people, they don’t understand the Internet and they don’t know what they’re talking about,” thought Greg Davis, a 29-year-old voter who was exasperated watching Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing.

“I haven’t voted so much in the past, but I’m paying attention this year,” said Tyler Seulean, 26. “It’s important to me now,” he continued, echoing a lot of what I heard across the borough on Election Day.

Amplify Her, a group encouraging young women to be more engaged in both election women and running themselves, agreed. “If you want younger people to vote, you have to talk about issues they care about. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy…you think only older people are going to vote, then you talk about issues they care about. There are so many younger candidates this year, and so I think this marks a shift…they are going to talk about issues younger people care about,” said 33 year old Sara Lind, Manhattan Borough Director of Amplify Her.

Shor had another theory. “People don’t talk about politics, they think of it as a personal policy for whatever reason. We need to break that down.” According to him, what stopped young people voting in the past was that people like Tyler and Greg weren’t talking to each other — ”young people don’t have this information, and their friends aren’t sharing it with them. So we have to.” When asked if he was simply alluding to peer pressure, Shor was tight-lipped, perhaps knowing that a key tenet of increasing voter turnout, according to research done by Cambridge University, is peer pressure.

But all that’s changing. Shor remembered that in 2014, he had never seen young people or people turned out or as “hyped out for state senate or every local race.” This year, there were “distinguishable signs of enthusiasm that we haven’t seen before.”

Is enthusiasm enough?

Unfortunately, organizations like Generation Vote, Amplify Her, Rock The Vote, and even the Michelle Obama-backed When We All Vote, don’t know.

For one, young voters are not a monolithic block. Young voters, those between 18–24, vote in myriad ways just like their older counterparts. Studies like the one conducted by Pew Research Center, find that young voters traditionally lean left but tend to move more conservative in the future. Moreover, recent elections specifically the 2016 election has proven that voting behavior is hard to predict — and hard to rely on. In fact, an analysis after the 2016 election by the Environmental Voter Project, showed that 78.1% of voters surveyed misrepresented their voting behavior.

Relatedly, a narrative of “change” which many attribute to the increase in young people voting is hard to push year after year at the ballot box, as the novelty of the message wears off. Youth turnout overall, some voting rights academics, believe is on a downward trend when compared to 1972 where 52% of 18–24 year olds voted when they first earned the right to vote. After electing Ocasio-Cortez, many young Democrats no longer see a the need or relevance to continue voting.

Organizations and young voting rights enthusiasts are optimistic nonetheless. They are counting on young voters seeing the effects of voting to spur future participation. “Everytime we organize,” Shor said, “we create more infrastructure for future organizing and momentum. In 2020, we will have prepared for a year but also increased attention, as we do usually for Presidential elections.” And his optimism is well-placed, country-wide he cites a 50% increase in youth turnout on average, and a 325% increase in youth turnout for Anthony Brandisi, Democrat-elect in upstate New York.

A combination of seeing young candidates succeed in politics with tangible outcomes, even wins, after they voted, Shor said, and the momentum will spur young voters to vote in the future.

In New York alone, voter turnout increased significantly in immigrant neighbourhoods with strong youth populations, according to reporting by Documented, a non-profit media publication that covers immigration in New York. The increase in turnout, especially amongst voters who have historically not voted, led to a shift, electing a record number of women, candidates of color, and veterans including Max Rose here in New York.

Similarly, pundits are optimistic of young voters voting in the future due to the “habit forming” nature of voting. This means, according to research by Dennis E. Glasford at the University of Connecticut, that early political participation, that is voting or working for a candidate at an early age, predicts future voting. “Therefore, increasing turnout at a young age can potentially increase overall turnout in the future,” explains Glasford.

But, there’s work to be done — organizations believe it’s now crucial to make it easier to vote. “There are a couple of cases that will spur more voting, for one the passing of Amendment 4. that is huge for civil rights,” said Shor when speaking about the ballot initiative in Florida that allows over 1 million formerly incarcerated individuals, some of them young, to vote in the next election, further expanding the electorate.

Other steps that Boards of Election can take to make sure youth voting becomes a mainstay, according to Generation Vote, Rock the Vote, and other voting rights experts is changing arbitrary voter registration deadlines, having to work on election day which precludes a lot of young people who work in hourly waged positions in retail or the restaurant industry from voting, and changing identification requirements. Organizations want to reduce these factors but time will tell if this has an effect.

“There is so much I’d change about this process, if I could. And I hope we attack some of these in 2019, since it’s an off-election year,” said Shor.

So what does this mean in the future? The answer is, as cliché as it sounds, only time will tell. As young people become a larger proportion of the voting age population and organizations continue building a larger base of young people who speak and are engaged with politics, young people might be here to stay as an electoral force. In 2020 and beyond. Similarly, voting rights groups are hopeful.

Personally, having spoken to young college voters who voted this year, for the first time, it appears that they have taken it to be their sole responsibility to make their cohort vote. Whether young voters will listen, to candidates, to Taylor Swift and Michelle Obama, and to their friends, let alone newly-elected Max Rose, only time will tell. But, for now, Shor said, “we’ve seen what we [young people] can do and we can only hope.”

Torontonian from Bombay in Brooklyn. Digital rights, immigration, and the Census. Read me on aunties: https://medium.com/@digitaljusticelab/not-like-the-aunties