Parkland student Cameron Kasky stood before thousands at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and vowed he and his fellow students would “educate ourselves,” register and vote in the mid-term elections to hold politicians accountable on gun control.
If they do show up to vote, they will be in the minority. Less than half of all registered Floridians traditionally cast a ballot in the mid-term election, and nationally, only 20 percent of voters ages 18-29 cast votes in the 2014 mid-terms, the lowest ever recorded.
“We hereby promise to fix the broken system that we’ve been forced into and create a better world for the generations to come,” Kasky said in his four-minute speech on March 24.
His generation has the numbers to make a difference, if they choose to use it. Voters between the ages of 18 and 35 will comprise almost 40 percent of the electorate by 2020, said Carolyn Dewitt, President of Rock the Vote, a national organization dedicated the building political power for young people.
“The youth generation is the largest most diverse, progressive generation in our country’s history,” she said. “It is massive and has incredible power — but it’s also incredibly complex.”
Demitri Hoth, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior who is among the activists at the school working to register students and organize their exploding movement, acknowledged that his age group is “the least active in politics” but many of them are starting to realize the power in their numbers.
“We are going to supercede the other generations,” said Hoth, who pre-registered to vote last year and will vote for the first time this election season. “Once people realize their votes and their voices have power, then keeping them voting at the ballot box will not be that difficult.”
Since the Parkland massacre that killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the #NeverAgain movement launched by Kasky, Hoth and their Parkland peers to demand school safety measures and gun reforms has also ignited an awareness of their political clout.
“Voting and voter registration is incredibly important but one of the best things to come out of this for people, and people my age, is how messy it is,” Kasky said. “Not only can we vote but we can get involved. This whole movement started in my ... living room. So, start small, and get involved.”
Hoth, who is organizing a voter registration drive on the two-month anniversary of the shooting, said that while his generation may begin as one-issue voters motivated on gun safety, “as we teach them about civic duty, they will be more inclined to vote on other issues as well.
“Our generation has grown up with so many political issues — immigration, DACA and now gun reform — everything that happens in Congress and Senate affects us directly,” he said.
National groups are also working to elevate the youth vote. Tom Steyer, the billionaire former hedge fund executive from San Francisco, announced in January he was pouring $30 million into getting out the youth vote, with a heavy emphasis on Florida. His NextGen America group announced it will conduct 13 “Vote for The Planet” voter registration events in Florida, starting at the University of Tampa on Tuesday.
Kasky won’t be old enough to vote this election cycle but that doesn’t deter him from getting involved. He and his peers are working on the Town Hall Project, hoping to get candidates to have candid conversations about school safety and gun violence.
“If you can’t vote you know people who do,” he said. “You can influence them to vote for what you believe in, follow their heart. It’s how you get the elected officials you want.”
So what do these new voters need to know to hold elected officials accountable? How can they make sure their votes matter? What can they require of candidates?
New and current voters can arm themselves with information about the candidates on the ballot. Rock The Vote has a web page devoted to information on the mechanics of voting in each state. Voters can demand answers to probing questions that reveal how prepared and committed a candidate is to making meaningful change. And they can watch how candidate rhetoric matches reality.
“It’s so important to look at how your elected officials vote,” Kasky said. “One of the good things about social media is it’s so easy to do it. Everything you need to know about the people running for office is available on your phone.”
He noted that when social media “reveals the dark side of some of these politicians” word spreads quickly. He referred to the Republican candidate for the Maine state House who called Parkland students Emma Gonzalez a “skinhead lesbian” and David Hogg, a “moron” and a “baldfaced liar” on Twitter and dropped out after the backlash.
Hoth said young voters are learning how “politicians tell you only what you want to hear and, a lot of times, they don’t want to answer questions directly.”
This time, he warned, “candidates have to be very wary because new voters want to know if you support their right to a safe education, so candidates who truly want to change policy will say ‘yes,’ and those who say ‘no’ will have no chance of getting elected.”
Here’s an FAQ on Florida’s voting basics
▪ How do I register?
Florida residents who are 18 years or older can register to vote. Those who are 16 or older can pre-register and their voter registration application will be processed on their 18th birthday. When submitting a voter registration application, you must provide your state-issued license or ID number or the last four digits of your Social Security number. No additional documents are required. The state confirms citizenship and eligibility through the information provided on registration forms.
The Florida Division of Elections has voter registration information online.
If you are a student, you can register from your campus address or home address — but not both. If you have moved from another state, Florida does not require registrants to live in the state for a specific amount of time before registering to vote.
Voting rights of persons convicted of a felony are automatically and permanently lost. Voting rights may be restored by pardon or by civil rights restoration through the state clemency board and governor.
▪ Where do I vote?
In Florida, you can vote in person at your designated polling site on Election Day, vote by mail as long as the ballot is received before Election Day, or vote in person at an early voting site. You must have a valid form of ID for each of these options. Look up your voting site and hours online at: https://registration.elections.myflorida.com/CheckVoterStatus.
▪ What are the registration deadlines?
July 30, 2018 to vote in the primary election on Aug. 28
Oct. 9, 2018 to vote in the general election on Nov. 6
▪ Do I need to register with a party?
Florida has closed primaries so only voters registered with a particular party may vote in that party’s primary. However, it is not necessary to register with a party in order to register to vote. Many voters choose to register with no party affiliation.
▪ What is the party breakdown in Florida government?
Republicans dominate Florida government, controlling the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, the chief financial officer, the agriculture commissioner and 24 of the 40 seats in the state Senate. In the state House, the Republican majority is 78-42. There is no one currently serving in any state or congressional district who is from a minority party or who has run without a party affiliation.
▪ How do I know who is running for what?
Candidates for U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, state attorney, public defender or to be a judge must submit their qualifying papers with the Florida Division of Elections between noon April 30 and noon May 4. Qualified candidates will be listed on the division’s web site.
Candidates for governor, attorney general, chief financial officer, commissioner of agriculture, state senator, state representative and county offices and multi-county special districts must qualify between noon June 18 and noon June 22.
▪ How do I know how a legislator voted on an issue?
You can search a legislator’s voting record if you know the name of the bill. Often, however, votes on amendments that are reflective of that legislator’s position are harder to track. For example, on the school safety bill that passed the legislature, SB 7026, you can go to the Florida House or Senate web sites, and look for the vote history of a bill and then review the votes on each of the amendments and the various drafts of the bills to see how lawmakers voted.
Mary Ellen Klas
Be an informed Florida voter
There is a reason change comes slowly in Florida and national politics. Deep-seated factors have resulted in legislative and congressional districts that are often not competitive, resulting in a political establishment that rewards the status quo. If candidates fear losing their seats, there is more incentive for them to be responsive to voters.
▪ Little competition: Dozens of legislative and congressional candidates don’t have to worry about voters because they are elected with no or only nominal competition.
In 2016, 22 of 40 senators and 63 of 120 House members were elected without a general or primary challenge, meaning those lawmakers came into office without a single vote cast in their favor. This was not a new phenomenon. In 2014, 8 senators and 38 House members were elected without opposition.
In Congress, about one third of the Florida’s 27 districts were considered competitive in 2016 after the districts were redrawn in a court-ordered process. One incumbent, Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami, was elected without opposition and only two were elected with less than a double-digit margin. Democrats picked up one seat.
▪ Term limits: One of the principle reasons there is little competition in Florida elections is the result of term limits. Florida’s constitution limits terms for statewide and legislative offices to eight years. Because incumbents have a natural advantage, many people are discouraged from challenging incumbents, preferring to wait out the terms until the seat is open. According to Ballotpedia, Florida follows th e trend throughout the nation and re-elects more than 90 percent of all incumbents each election cycle.
▪ Redistricting: Florida’s congressional and state Senate maps were drawn in a court-approved process, making those districts more competitive that those in the state House of Representatives, which were drawn by Republicans and have worked to favor Republicans and discourage competitive races. In 2016, Miami-Dade County was the most competitive place in the state, and three districts were closely divided. A fourth closely divided district was in the Gainesville area, where Republican Keith Perry defeated former state Sen. Rod Smith, a Democrat. In the House, only 13 seats were considered competitive and more than half of all lawmakers were elected to office without opposition.
▪ Expense: Candidates for state office, from the governor, attorney general, agriculture commissioner, and chief financial officer to the state House and Senate, are allowed to create campaign committees that collect unlimited contributions from special interests — including those they regulate. Incumbents who hold these offices have a far easier time fundraising than a newcomer with less name recognition. According to Ballotopedia estimates, the average state Senate campaign in the 2014 mid-term elections cost $208,578 and the average state House race cost $113,269, the fifth highest in the nation.
Followthemoney.org is a web site that tracks congressional candidate contributions and, with more of a time lag, state contributions. The Florida Division of Elections web site allows you to track contributions and expenses for state candidates and their committees. Candidates for state office are allowed to receive up to $3,000 per election from one source, but if they create a political committee — which many do — they can receive unlimited amounts of money from anyone.
State officials don’t make it as easy to trace contributions to a political committee. You need to know the name of the committee. Do a search of the candidate and political committee and then plug in the name in the committee database on the elections web site, or download the active committees list and try to find the candidate. They are not always listed clearly.
Mary Ellen Klas