While the March for Our Lives’ overarching theme was gun reform, nonprofit organizations like HeadCount had volunteers in 30 cities registering nearly 5,000 new voters, mostly young people.
HeadCount Founder Andy Bernstein has said 4 million newly eligible voters turn 18 in 2018, and that’s not counting the electorate of young people, or millennials, over 18 who aren’t currently registered to vote.
Young people have historically stayed at home for midterm races. Voters under the age of 30 made up between 11 and 13 percent of the electorate in midterm elections between 1994 and 2014, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
During the high-profile 2016 presidential election, just below half of eligible millennial voters between the age of 18 and 35 years old said they voted, according to the Pew Research Center. But the age group currently ranks second to Baby Boomers in voting-age citizens, 69.2 million versus 69.7 million as of April 2016.
The ETSU Votes team, led by Joy Fulkerson, assistant director of Leadership and Civic Engagement at East Tennessee State University, has been working to, not just register college students, but get them passionate about their civic duty.
“Typically, folks vote when they have an issue they're passionate about, right? I think that's the trick for us is to not only talk about the importance of getting registered to vote, but try to help students identify the issues in which they care about and directly affect them so they utilize that energy, that passion and the opportunity to make real change,” Fulkerson said.
ETSU Votes helped grow its student voter participation from 37.8 percent in 2012 to 47.3 percent in 2016, winning the “Most Improved Student Voter Participation” award in a competition against other Southern Conference universities.
Fulkerson said it was encouraging to see so many youth participate in the March for Our Lives events, not to mention register to vote.
“Kudos to the young people. I think it’s very inspiring. There’s a quote that talks about ‘If it’s not us, then who is it?’ You can’t wait for someone else to do it,” Fulkerson said.
Many political campaigns, specifically those competing in Tennessee’s 1st House District, already realize the growing influence young people bring to the ballot box.
Like many modern campaigns, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, Republican challenger Todd McKinley and Democrat Marty Olsen all rely on young staffers to help them craft their messages to reach younger voters.
Roe has hosted many town halls on Facebook for constituents to ask questions, while McKinley has hosted “Ask Todd Anything” events on Facebook to reach voters. Olsen’s campaign also uses Facebook and Instagram, and recently hosted his first “AMA” or ask me anything on Reddit, a popular social media platform for millennials.
"The thing about young people is they are such a diverse bunch, and one of the credits to millennials is they come from different backgrounds and they use different social media platforms. So it's hard to put them in one basket or corner them,” Olsen for Congress Campaign Manager Clare Considine, 23, said. “Our social media outreach program doesn't focus on one thing because we know that young people are all over the board.”
While actually reaching young people is important, the substance of the message is equally so.
Olsen said decreasing the national debt for future generations and enhancing health care access are two topics that directly affect younger voters.
“When you look at things, like adding $1.5 trillion to the debt that they're going to have to pay for someday. When you look at who doesn't have healthcare, the millennial age group is overrepresented in those who don't have healthcare,” Olsen said.
“It was a tragedy what caused this to happen, but it's way overdue for young people to step up and say, 'Listen to me.' They've just got to show up and vote now.”
McKinley said the young people he’s spoken to have been interested in his pro-medical marijuana stance and job creation, adding that most young people “think they have to go elsewhere to get a job.” He said he hopes to work with local governments to bring more industry to Northeast Tennessee and get more technical certification programs in high schools.
Roe said establishing more grant programs for technical education and finding ways to decrease student loan debt were items he’s promoting to young people.
“When I was a student you could work your way through college and you can no longer do that. Some of these people are strapped with onerous debt so we’re working on that,” Roe said. “And certainly, one of the most important things that we’re working on is the Perkins Career and Technical Education (Act). There are so many jobs in our district right here that are going unfilled.”
While McKinley, Olsen and Roe all agree the growing interest in politic among youth is encouraging, Olsen might benefit the most from the growing youth interest since the latest Pew study showed 55 percent of millennials identify as Democrats and a growing number, 27 percent, identify as liberal Democrats as opposed to moderate or conservative.
However, history doesn’t bode well for Olsen: a Democrat hasn’t won Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District since the 1880s.