(Bloomberg) -- Nationwide demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody drove tens of thousands of young people to the streets. Now liberal activists have reason to believe they can channel that energy into votes for Joe Biden.
During the first two weeks of June, as protesters gathered across the country, more than 293,000 Americans registered to vote via Vote.org, a nonpartisan group that promotes voting. That number represented nearly a third of all registrants so far this year and 48% were younger than 34.
And polls show those younger people overwhelmingly favor Biden over President Donald Trump. A New York Times/Siena College poll published Wednesday found Biden leading Trump among voters 18 to 34 by 34 percentage points.
Democrats, still stung by Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2016, are looking to find new voters who can make the difference in tight races. Trump is lagging Biden both nationally and in battleground states, but to win in November, Democrats will need to harness that support and get young people to vote.
Although the surges in participation by young voters that were expected for President Barack Obama and later Clinton did not fully materialize, a survey by the Center for Information and Research at Tufts University, found that Americans 18-24 are more engaged in politics than they have been previously. Half of those surveyed said they tried to convince another young American to vote, up from 33% in 2018. And young voter participation in every category -- donating money, attending a march, registering others to vote, volunteering for a political campaign -- rose by double digits compared with 2016.
The New York Times/Siena College poll found that 50% of voter under the age of 30 would “almost certainly” vote, and 34% said it was “very likely.”
And young voters are becoming increasingly aligned with Democrats. Research from Tufts’s Circle found that young voters’ preferences, traditionally split between Democrats and Republicans, shifted toward supporting Obama and later Clinton by double-digit margins.
“This decisive youth voter choice is significant because, if young people participate in large enough number, they can tip an election,” a 2018 Circle report read.
Issues that directly affect their peers drive engagement among younger voters, like school shootings, violence against young Black men and an economy that is flagging just as they leave school and enter the workforce.
“The folks that are on the front line are Gen Z, not Millennials,” said Cici Battle, director of a group that encourages youth voting. She noted they came of age watching the high-profile killings of young Blacks like Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland.
“That was a part of their high school experience, some their middle-school experience,” Battle said. “Many were encouraged to go to college or college-like programs and now some of them are starting to graduate in another recession with few job opportunities.”
Circle’s research has found a connection between increased activism and increased voting.
The 2018 election followed the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which sparked student demonstrations for gun control around the country. Young voters who were involved with or supported that movement were 21 percentage points more likely to say they voted in 2018. Abby Kiesa, director of impact at Circle, said in an interview that 43% of young voters said Parkland influenced their vote for Congress at least somewhat, 20% said it did a lot.
“Midterm turnout among young people has been static for decades, and now we’re coming off of an election where there was record turnout among young people,” Kiesa said. “We may have many more 18, 19 year olds -- now 20, 21 year olds -- registered to vote than we normally would.”
“There isn’t actually a division between movement type activities and electoral activities,” she added. “They really overlap.”
Converting outrage to votes
Thenjiwe McHarris, a leading organizer with the Movement for Black Lives, said connecting the demonstrations on the street to the ballot box is a priority for the organization.
“It’s very clear that this moment requires that no tactic be left unused. I think we’re going to see over the coming months more and more people, more young people, voting out folks who have been in office who have through encouragement or neglect, allowed police violence to continue,” McHarris said. “Based on what I’ve seen I think we’re going to see a potential surge across Black communities and across young people.”
Despite the widespread protests, the coronavirus may force much of that activism online.
Battle’s organization will be holding weekly Instagram seminars through the summer to educate young Americans on registering to vote, hoping to keep the momentum alive until Nov. 3.
Savannah Arnett, 18, participated in protests in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, in response to the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in her home.
Arnett said she is looking forward to voting in her first presidential election. She supported Bernie Sanders in the primary but Trump’s actions regarding causes she cares about like racial justice and LGBTQ rights have re-engaged her.
“I feel like everyone I know is very involved. We are very determined to change,” Arnett said. “It’s a bummer that Bernie dropped out but I think Biden is our next best option, even if he’s not the perfect candidate. Getting Trump out is the most important thing, so even if it’s not Bernie, Biden will be the better choice.”
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