Miranda Day, 23, and Lilyanne Rodriguez, 19, spent hundreds of hours last fall asking the area’s young people to register to vote. The pair were working for NextGen America, a nonprofit founded by Tom Steyer, a California billionaire and liberal activist who has poured tens of millions of dollars into grassroots efforts to elect leaders who will take action on climate change.
Day, a NextGen field organizer, and Rodriguez, a NextGen fellow, set up tables on the area’s four college campuses: New College of Florida, Ringling College of Art and Design, State College of Florida and the University of South Florida. “We reminded people that politicians don’t cater to us because we don’t show up,” says Rodriguez. “If we hold them accountable, then we can make a difference. That resonated with a lot of people.” Thanks in part to Day and Rodriguez, New College set a record for having the highest percentage of students in the nation registered to vote across all campuses in the country where NextGen was active.
In November, those students showed up to vote. In the general election, 13,019 voters under the age of 30 cast a ballot in Sarasota County. That was a more than 200 percent increase from the fewer than 6,000 voters under 30 in the 2014 midterms. Similarly, more young voters showed up nationally in the midterms and were a key factor in electing a Democratic majority to the House of Representatives.
Still, in Sarasota County, the 65 and older group, predominantly Republican, remained the highest voting demographic for the midterm election, accounting for roughly 79 percent of ballots. “Younger voters are less likely to vote,” says New College professor of political science and former Democratic state lawmaker Keith Fitzgerald. “Their sense of a direct stake in outcomes is low. As we age, our interests become clearer and we can see some direct impact of politics on our lives.”
Day and Rodriguez say the No. 1 issue for young voters was gun safety, but cost of living and affordable housing came up as well. “We also had people mention broader issues like rights for LGBTQ individuals, racial equality and sexual assault prevention,” says Rodriguez.
It’s too early to tell if last year’s enthusiasm will endure, but people who vote in their first eligible election tend to become habitual voters. They also tend to vote Democratic by two to
one, says Frank Alcock, also a professor of political science at New College.
“For those under 29, about 55 percent voted for Hillary Clinton,” he says. “That is a major shift towards Democrats. Demographically, this country is becoming more diverse. That tends to benefit Democratic candidates, and that trend is irreversible.”
Republicans are trying to appeal to a younger demographic, too. “We’re not concerned at all,” says chairman of the Sarasota Republican Party and Florida Sen. Joe Gruters about the changing demographics. “We just need to do a better job at educating younger people of some of the ideals and values we hold.”
The Republican Party of Sarasota has reached out to nearby high schools and made a conscious effort to hire more young interns. “The more participation we get from young people, and the more in tune they are, the faster we can solve some of the problems that they have,” Gruters says. “I look at [younger voters] as a great thing.”
Day and Rodriguez are enthusiastic about getting young people to vote. “It’s inspiring to get people to care,” says Rodriguez, “and to get them to dismiss this idea that politics doesn’t affect them.”