Since the Parkland shooting in February, there have been movements nationwide to energize young people to vote in this November’s midterm elections.
Jessica Maggio is a part of that movement. Recently, she stood outside of the HUB Robeson Center on Penn State’s University Park campus, attempting to strike up conversations with students streaming into and out of the building.
“Hi, have you registered to vote here in State College yet?” Maggio said to a group of students passing by. Someone said yes. “Alright, perfect, you have a good one then.”
Maggio is an organizer with NextGen America, a left-leaning advocacy group. The organization’s volunteers and fellows have been registering students to vote. Penn State is a big goal for them.
Convincing students to stop and fill out the form is the first step. Volunteers have some tricks up their sleeves when it comes to helping first-time voters, like a lot of students are.
Maggio showed a new volunteer how.
“If they don’t know their Pennsylvania driver’s license number, or they don’t have one, and they don’t know the last four digits of their social, ask if they can call their mom, because a lot of the times their parents know it,” Maggio said.
The organization said it has registered more than 3,000 Penn State students since the beginning of the fall semester.
Jarrett Smith, the state youth director of Pennsylvania for the organization, said the State College area has been one of the highest performing areas in terms of numbers of registrations.
“I think one of the challenges that we’ve had is that young people are transient. They’re constantly moving because of things like school. So, we do face some structural challenges in getting out the youth vote,” Smith said. His work also involves canvassing outside of campus and campaigning online.
Smith said the goal for NextGen America, founded and funded by billionaire activist Tom Steyer, is to elect representatives who support young people and progressive issues, although their work to register voters is non-partisan.
He pointed to the increase in turnout from younger voters in the May primary elections in Philadelphia. The organization said it believes young voters will make an impact this November.
Eric Plutzer gives that a reality check.
“I think it's very unlikely,” Plutzer said. He’s a professor of political science at Penn State, and the director of polling for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.
“Nationally, we see almost no evidence whatsoever,” he said. “ To date there has not been a major uptick nationally in voter registration. Polls that have been conducted asked people how certain they are that they'll be voting in the November elections show young people very unsure whether they will definitely vote.”
As of October 1, voters age 18 to 24 account for 8 percent of all registered voters in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of State. By comparison, the 55 to 64 age group makes up 19 percent of voters.
Young voters need strong, positive motivation to vote, Plutzer said. Historically, it happened once - during the Vietnam War - when young people became very aware that their friends were drafted to fight “a very unpopular war,” Plutzer said. The 2008 presidential election also saw a small uptick in young voter turnout, but this November election is neither of those situations.
“First-time voters, especially around university campuses, are going to be unfamiliar with the local elections, the local issues,” Plutzer said. “They've got to be motivated to vote on some broader national themes. Just getting them registered won't be sufficient.”
Voting is a habit, according to Plutzer. For inexperienced voters, even small hurdles like finding the right polling places and waiting in line on a Tuesday to cast a vote could loom large. But, he said, it’s okay to learn as you go.
“If you live in a community, you're more likely to have opportunities to learn about local property taxes as your kids go to school. You'll think about the way that funds are distributed across districts in the state and arguments that might seem very technical to an inexperienced voter will make more sense.”
Outside of the HUB, Tiffany Ghosn, a graduate student studying international affairs, took a clipboard, sat down on the curb and started filling out a registration form.
Ghosn hesitated for a moment before checking the box to identify as a Democrat. She said her views on social issues are still changing.
“I feel like when it comes down to it, the party won’t matter as much as the politician and if my views align with theirs,” she said.
Just like her peers, Ghosn is taking time to form her political worldview. But the first step is done.
“Okay. I’m registered to vote now!” Ghosn laughed.
The last day to register to vote in the November election is October 9.