The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taylor Swift and Rihanna told young people to register. They’re doing it, but are they going to actually vote?

"V" is for "vote." (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
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Taylor Swift, Rihanna and even the Avengers are telling young people to register to vote. The Parkland, Fla., students and March for Our Lives organizers, now celebrities in their own right, fill social media feeds with young, smiling, diverse, mostly liberal canvassers.

There are some signs that young people are listening.

Organizations like NextGen America, which is one of several groups dedicated to turning out young voters this year, say they have registered over 200,000 voters for the midterm elections. (NextGen is a liberal group but must register individuals of all party affiliations.) A record 800,000 people from all age groups signed up on National Voter Registration Day, Sept 25.

In Indiana, 16.4 percent of registered voters as of October 2018 were ages 18 to 29, compared with 15.5 percent in March, according to Aristotle, a database of voter file data obtained from states (not all states have updated voter registration information).

But now comes the biggest hurdle: getting these young registered voters to actually, well, vote. And historically, young people have not been very good at doing that.

Celebrities, including Cher, Alyssa Milano, Debra Messing and Milo Ventimiglia, have been using their platform to call on people to vote this election. (Video: Reuters)

Frankie Constantino, 18, is “basically a newbie” when it comes to politics. The New Jersey native attends school at George Mason University in Virginia, and politics had never been a part of his daily life. “I found myself too busy to think about politics. I never cared much,” he said.

His roommate, an economics major, successfully urged him to register. But Constantino admitted that he’s still deciding whether to actually head to the polls in November. He’s not sure his vote counts and doesn’t identify strongly with any particular party.

Constantino isn’t alone. A Gallup poll from late September showed that only 26 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 were “absolutely” certain to vote, compared with 55 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds. A poll of 18- to 24-year-olds from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University painted a rosier picture, showing that 34 percent of them are “extremely likely” to vote.

“We won’t know until Election Day whether the atmosphere in this election cycle, which is certainly a distinct atmosphere, translates to more engagement or not,” said Justin Levitt, an election law expert and professor at Loyola Law School at Los Angeles.

There are signs that at the very least, youth voter turnout will exceed 2014’s rock-bottom 16 percent turnout. Some young people believe that voting, especially in this election, is a civic duty.

“The younger you go, the more enthusiasm we seem to be sensing,” said CIRCLE Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. “We expected to see lowest enthusiasm among youngest voters, but this year we’re not seeing that trend at all. Within our sample, we’re seeing about as many 18- to 19-year-olds extremely likely to vote as the older ones.”

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“My sense is that voters of all stripes are looking at the policies that they watch the government produce and they’re connecting it more to the voting process,” said Levitt.

“My vote and every people’s vote is so vital to causing change,” said Smitha Mahesh, 19, a Johns Hopkins University student who would be voting in her first election. “As a first generation [citizen] and a woman of color, I realized I need to vote to speak for those who cannot vote.”

Days before Virginia’s registration deadline, representatives from NextGen were helping students at George Mason University register, confirm their registration, or answer the myriad FAQs that students had about the process.

Justin Boachie, a 20-year-old studying computer game design, was one of the students who stopped by NextGen’s table. At first, Boachie said, “I just don’t care. I’m trying to take care of myself, find a job on campus.”

But then, he changed his mind. He watched an online ad titled “Dear Young People: Don’t Vote." The ad, which is part of the “Knock the Vote” campaign by liberal digital media organization Acronym, features elderly white people gleefully, cartoonishly mocking young voters with lines like “Climate change? That’s a ‘you’ problem. I’ll be dead soon!” and declaring their confidence that America’s next generations won’t show up at the polls to do anything about it.

“I was like, ‘Damn, you’re right!’” Boachie exclaimed. So there he was at NextGen’s table, making sure his registration was all sorted out. He would be voting, he confirmed, in November.