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What Will Bring Young Voters to the Polls? 


Sabine Kamagou, 19, right, gets help filling out a voter registration form from Cyndi Morrison, a worker in the Sacramento County registrar's office, in Sacramento, Calif., Oct. 22, 2018.

Younger Americans don't want to come to your party — your Democratic or Republican party.

Younger voters 18 to 30-ish — which includes Generation Y, Millennials, post-Millennials and Generation Z — traditionally skew more toward liberal candidates than conservatives. But lately, many are registering as independents. Others, specifically young white males, are drifting toward the red camp.

Political divisiveness and fear about the future left to them by baby boomers is the problem, they say.

"I don't feel good about it," Charlie Owens, 23, of Chattanooga, Tenn., told VOA about the health of the U.S.

"Our nation is divided by parties," said Emily Pitts, 24, of Charleston, S.C. "We are not united as Americans."

"It's a hot mess," said Ashley Ashe, 22, of Greenville, S.C.

Research leading up to the Nov. 6 midterm elections says young voters are dismayed about the country's polarized, contentious politics. A key issue for many is gun violence. Mass shootings — like the one in which 17 people were killed and dozens were injured at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14 — have weighed on young people; they’ve grown up in a country where the level of gun violence exceeds those in all other industrialized nations.

"These young people, born after the mid-'90s, grew up with the internet, smartphones and social media while watching news of school shootings and having active-shooter drills in their own classrooms," wrote Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a research group focused on the political views of young people. It’s part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

"The post-Parkland movement against gun violence stands out as one led by this generation and explicitly focused on voting as a way to achieve change," she said.

Registration drive

Parkland students ignited registration of young voters this year, and the midterms will tell whether the effort has been able to change the political landscape. Six weeks after the Parkland attack, they organized 200,000 protesters against gun violence in Washington and thousands of others at similar events nationwide.

Then they took to the road, launching a two-month bus tour across the U.S. to register voters of all ages.

TargetSmart, an organization that crunches political data, says youth voter registration has "surged" in Pennsylvania, a state key to the success of Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016. It also reports increased registration among youths in Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Indiana and New York.

But will it be enough to bring young voters to the polls?

Gun violence “is definitely an issue that is important to me," said Katia Portela, a freshman from New York City at American University in Washington. "The Parkland students have been just so inspiring — going out and lobbying, really standing for what they believe in, even after that traumatic incident."

Other topics of concern among youths are climate change, health care and student debt, issues that did not burden their parents and grandparents to the same degree, if at all.

The validity of science about global warming that was once generally accepted has been questioned by some politicians. The Affordable Care Act, enacted under then-President Barack Obama, has been tossed about in political debate as, well, unaffordable. And student debt has been climbing for decades, leaving today's younger Americans with choices between student loan payments or marriage and children, but not both.

"I feel an immense burden in terms of the swelling federal deficit, the inaction on climate change and the threat of war with Iran," lamented Alex Eliades, 24, of Washington.

While a Harvard University Institute of Politics poll shows that nearly 60 percent of young Americans are fearful about their futures, they are not without hope.

Power to make change

"Four out of five young people (81 percent) say that as a group, they have the power to change things in this country," CIRCLE reported. "More than half of young people (54.8 percent) say they believe this election's outcome will have an impact on everyday issues."

Portela, the American University freshman, echoed those sentiments.

"Things are happening in this world, and if we want change, we can't just wait for it to happen," she said. "We have to be the change we want to see in the world."

Enthusiasm aside, Richard Fry, senior researcher with the Pew Research Center in Washington, was cautions about pre-election turnout predictions.

Generational comparisons over time are "rough at best," because "each midterm election has its own unique set of issues and national conditions, which undoubtedly influence overall turnout," Fry wrote on Pew's website about the fallibility of polling.

"If the younger generations were to turn out to vote at the rates boomers did when they were younger, post-Millennials, Millennials and Gen Xers would account for the majority of votes."

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