“It’s made young voters realize that elections have consequences and that if you want a certain outcome, you have to get out and vote,” said Michael Klein, a 21-year-old Catholic University student who describes himself as politically conservative. “It’s a very real process. It’s not some far-off concept that doesn’t really affect us.”
Voter participation among 18- to 29-year-olds surged between 2014 and 2018 — from 20 percent to 36 percent of registered voters in that group, according to theCensus Bureau. Now, college students in the District, many of whom selected their schools to be closer to national politics, have a message for the candidates they plan to support in 2020: Use us.
“I hope that the parties and the candidates know that young voters are engaged in the process,” said AJ Williamson, a junior and a Democrat at Georgetown University. “There’s a stereotype that young people are apathetic. I hope they know there is a change in that.”
College students have assignments to complete and exams to pass, but a lot of them are also organizing their peers for local and national elections. They want to shed the stereotype of being uninterested in politics. And they want politicians to include them in their campaigns.
Young people on D.C.-area campuses are hoping to tap into the energy that has defined political movements such as Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives. But they report feeling like an untapped resource.
“We have so many able bodies — young Republicans eager to get involved in the election process,” said Joey Rodriguez, a member of a college Republicans group at George Washington University.
Mike Burns, national director of the nonpartisan Campus Vote Project, said he agrees that candidates don’t spend enough time with Generation Z, the oldest of whom were born in 1997, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I find it counterintuitive that you don’t see more campaigns invested,” Burns said about outreach efforts that target young people.
A shortage of registered voters could be part of the issue, Burns said. As of November 2018, about 45 percent of people ages 18 to 24 were registered to vote, a rate lower than any other age group, data from the Census Bureau shows. Because of that, candidates may consider it a waste of energy to spend too much time on campuses.
That could change if universities adopt plans to increase voter engagement. Officials at Georgetown announced this month that students can register to vote whenthey sign up for classes. George Mason has a voting precinct on campus.
Nigel Johnson, president of Howard University’s chapter of College Democrats, wants more people on his campus to vote, too.
“They have this preconceived notion that young people don’t vote,” Johnson said of candidates. Thus, he said, politicians adopt the attitudethat “if young people don’t vote, what’s the purpose of wasting my time talking to them?”
At American University and other campuses, students have formed interest groups to spread their favorite candidate’s message. Elliot Williams, 19, gathered about two dozen of his peers this semester to form the school’s Students for Bernie chapter.
But before that, he participated in six online training sessions that taught him how to campaign for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“You, personally, are responsible for mobilizing those voters,” Williams said. “Traditionally, the campaign is responsible for that.”
About 1,600 students at 627 colleges participated in the same program, said Sanders spokesman Joe Calvello.
Former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign has placed a heavy focus on states with early primaries and caucuses. Students in Iowa and South Carolina are being recruited and trained to help their peers become campus organizers, said Jamal Brown, a campaign spokesman.
The campaign of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has also prepared young people in early voting states to organize their peers. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has toured campuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Georgia.
Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s website helps potential supporters connect with student volunteers who promote Yang’s platform and host on-campus events, according to S.Y. Lee, a spokesman. And Students With Warren chapters have sprung up at high schools, community colleges and universities, said Alexis Krieg, a spokeswoman for the campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Campaign organizers are planted on campuses in early voting states.
The Republican National Committee and Trump Victory operation launched the “Make Campus Great Again” initiative to register voters, an RNC official said in an email.
But Williamson, the Georgetown student, said politicians should do more if they want to secure the youth vote, which could be instrumental in the primaries.
“I would personally like to see candidates come out and support things that would make it easier for students to vote and engage in the political process,” he said.
It’s not just students in the District who want more attention from politicians. Young people in swing states such as Pennsylvania also want candidates to take them seriously.
In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 5 election in Virginia, Kline and others at George Mason hosted daily phone banks and spent weekends knocking on doors in Fairfax County. Democrats won majorities in the state’s Senate and House of Delegates. And candidates supported by the Democratic Party swept all seats on the Fairfax County School Board.
“We’re kind of used to being kind of underestimated,” Kline said. “We’re here, we’re engaged, we are energetic, and we have a lot of thoughts. I wish everybody would realize that.”
Even though grass-roots efforts to mobilize voters have been bubbling up on campuses, the focus on these institutions leaves out most people between the ages of 18 and 24. In 2017, just 40 percent of young adults were enrolled in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Johnson, at Howard, suggested that candidates meet young people where they are, including basketball courts and movie theaters. He said the effort is crucial if political leaders want to fulfill the promises they have made on the campaign trail.
The presidential campaign of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently invited students from Howard to an event in the District at which Buttigieg discussed his plan to address racism in education, health care and criminal justice, Johnson said.
“That’s just one example of one thing we would like to see candidates doing better,” Johnson said. “We would like to see candidates reaching out more to invite us to events they have in D.C.”
Seventy-five chapters of Students for Pete are dispersed throughout the country, said Marisol Samayoa, a campaign spokeswoman.
“It’s very important for our campaign to engage voters on college campuses and engage young voters, because our candidate is a millennial,” Samayoa said. “We have a candidate that understands what it’s like to live with the consequences of climate change.”
In the months leading up to primaries and caucuses, Johnson is trying to breathe new life into his chapter of College Democrats. He’s planning debate watch parties, panel discussions and voter registration events.
“It’s not in a politician’s best interest, in my opinion, to ignore what young people have to say,” Johnson said. “They like to say they’re here for the future of their children, but they don’t consult their children on what do they want that world to look like.”