State Politics

Florida’s youth are registering to vote. How will that affect the midterm election?

Esha Patel, center, gets help registering to vote from Gail Johnston at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law in Georgia on Tuesday, National Voter Registration Day.
Esha Patel, center, gets help registering to vote from Gail Johnston at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law in Georgia on Tuesday, National Voter Registration Day. bcabell@macon.com

Armed with doughnut holes and coffee, Hannah Klein is strategically positioned on a South Florida college campus in pursuit of a mission that on its face would seem an easy sell.

“Are you registered to vote?” she asks a Broward College student approaching the NextGen America voter registration booth, set up outside the school’s Davie campus student center on National Voter Registration Day.

“No,” the student responds, smiling politely but not missing a step as she walks away. “And I don’t want to.”

Think registering voters is difficult? Try getting them to actually vote once they’ve signed up.

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Though adults under the age of 35 now rival baby boomers as the largest voting bloc in the country, the youngest of American voters still participate in elections at a miserable clip: Only about one in five voted in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections. But following a youth movement born out of the school shooting in Parkland last February — and millions of dollars in get-out-the-vote spending by political and civic groups — the needle may be moving in the country’s largest swing state in a way that could have consequences in November.

Data released by the Florida Division of Elections show that post-primary voter registration is up in comparison to the 2014 midterms, and preliminary primary turnout among the youngest of voters — the group that overwhelmingly makes up the bulk of the newly registered — at least nearly doubled. It’s too soon to know exactly how high turnout rose among young voters, as most population-dense counties, including Miami-Dade, had yet to report full information on who voted into the state’s most recent voter file.

But throw in young and newly registered independent voters eligible to vote in November and it’s potentially enough to shift the results of a statewide election by around a percentage point, which could be the difference between victory and defeat in a swing state with historically tight top-of-ticket contests.

“This country has changed a lot since” 2014 says Klein, a South Florida field organizer for NextGen America, which is spending millions in Florida to register young voters and promote the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Andrew Gillum. “Young people have changed a lot since then.”

In the first eight months of 2018, about 450,000 new voters registered in Florida — a quarter of whom are young voters between the ages of 18 and 24. The majority of those voters have registered without a party affiliation, according to an analysis of the state’s voter file. And in the month after the July 30 deadline passed for voters to register in time to participate in the August primary election, nearly 76,000 people have registered.

University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith said he expects to see the bump in registrations continue through the Oct. 9 deadline to register for the midterm general election. But the payoff will be short, he said. While voters who register immediately before an election are more likely to go vote, they’re also more likely to drop off after that first election.

“It’s like a short-term investment,” Smith said.

Because of that phenomenon and the decision by many new voters to avoid party affiliation, registration efforts by candidates and political parties are a heavy lift, he said. Most voter registration efforts stem from civic organizations or political groups like NextGen, March For Our Lives or We All Vote, which is sending Michelle Obama to the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables Friday.

But even if the return on investment is short-lived, the result could have a dramatic effect on politics in Florida and the country.

Going back four years to Florida’s last midterm elections — low-turnout affairs in which Floridians have over the past two decades leaned conservative — only one in 20 young Republicans turned out to vote, and only one in 28 young Democrats. Fast-forward to August, and the partial voter file available from the state indicates those numbers jumped.

For those who choose to affiliate with a party, young Democrats outnumber their conservative peers. Then consider that the group doesn’t include independent voters, and that in a 2014 election with nearly 6 million votes cast for governor, Republican Gov. Rick Scott beat Democrat Charlie Crist by 64,145 votes.

Left-leaning groups like NextGen, which is funded by billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer, hope that they can change the outcome in tight elections and push a more progressive agenda on issues like climate change and gun control by motivating new and young voters to participate. In the Democratic primary for Florida governor, there’s evidence that enthusiasm among young and unlikely voters helped Gillum, the 39-year-old Migos-quoting mayor of Tallahassee, overcome a heavy financial disadvantage and pull off a stunning victory.

In Davie on Tuesday, Tajhana Barnes, 19, registered to become one of Florida’s newest voters. Barnes, whose family is from Jamaica and who is studying nursing, said she wanted to register in order to vote for the Democrat running for governor.

“He’s black. I feel like he’ll represent us better,” said Barnes, who wants to learn more about the candidates on the ballot. “I don’t know his name. Do you?”

Klein, the 26-year-old NextGen field director running the show Tuesday at Broward College, persuaded Barnes to register and walked her through the process, explaining to her the party choices when she came to that point of the form. NextGen organizers say they don’t push parties on registrants, and Klein didn’t make any recommendations.

Klein is confident that the tens of thousands of young voters being registered by NextGen at college campuses across the state will participate in a way that matters. Plenty of students stopped by to fill out issues cards or update their voter’s registration address. If there was a slow pace on Tuesday, she said, it was due in part to the fact that NextGen has been registering voters at the school for weeks now.

Smith, the UF professor, is more skeptical.

“There’s a lot to be seen here in the next couple weeks,” he said.

Visit the Miami-Dade County Elections Department website for more information on when and where to vote. To register to vote online, visit the state’s voter registration website.

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