MADISON, Wis. - NextGen believes its multi-million dollar effort helped increase turnout among voters ages 18-35, but experts say that cannot be tied to one group or strategy.
Borna Riazi, 19, said his parents and teachers “never really” pushed him to vote. Riazi did not see voting as something that had a direct impact on his life. Plus, he described himself as “too lazy.”
“I wish you could just show up to a place and just vote,” Riazi said. “Like, no pre-registration, no nothing.”
But being a student on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus before the 2018 midterm election put voting directly in Riazi’s path.
“I wasn’t about to go out of my way, and then they were doing voter registration at the gym,” Riazi said. “I basically live there. So I was like, ‘Well, I guess I better register.’ ”
Then about a week before the midterm elections, Riazi and two friends walked by a giant giraffe bounce house on the campus of 44,000 students.
Field organizers from NextGen Wisconsin, a political action group focused on turning out young progressive voters, encouraged them to enjoy the free bounce house and to vote early. The three jumped for about 20 minutes, then walked across the street to cast their ballots.
For Riazi, NextGen Wisconsin — and a friend who nagged him to vote — definitely played a role.
The stakes are high: By 2020, millennials and Generation Zers together are projected to make up 36 percent of the electorate — more than Baby Boomers at 28 percent, according to Pew Research. But young people have historically shown up less than any other age group, especially during midterms.
One reason is people tend to care more about politics after finishing their education, getting a job and starting a family, said Connie Flanagan, associate dean of the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology and an expert on youth and politics — milestones that millennials and Gen Zers are hitting at later ages than previous generations.
According to estimates provided by NextGen, the number of 18-35-year-olds who voted in Wisconsin in 2018 increased by about 80,000 — to just over 313,000 — compared to 2014.
Gov. Tony Evers won the election by 29,227 votes.
With young people ages 18-29 supporting Evers by a 60-37 margin over incumbent Gov. Scott Walker based on CNN exit polls, it is clear these voters helped push Evers to his narrow victory.
A NextGen America spokeswoman said her group was the largest in Wisconsin working to turn out young people, although experts caution that without more research, the increase cannot be definitively tied to one group or strategy.
“We believe we have the most staff, the most money invested, the most states, the highest number of total registered voters,” said Olivia Bercow, deputy communications director for NextGen America. “We’re the largest youth vote program in American history.”
Voting brings youth issues to forefront
When young people do vote, politicians take up the issues they care about, Flanagan said. Because of youth involvement in the 2016 presidential primary — particularly Vermont Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign — issues including student loan debt and a $15 minimum wage are “getting attention now.”
In 2018, NextGen America, funded by billionaire activist Tom Steyer, pumped $33 million into 11 states, including Wisconsin, specifically targeting young progressives.
The group’s get-out-the-vote effort in Wisconsin cost nearly $3 million. NextGen’s strategies included puppies, goats, rallies and celebrities. And it may have worked.
But whether such an effort is sustainable election after election and in settings outside college campuses remain open questions, experts told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
Civic education in high school, automatic voter registration and pre-registration for teenagers may be other ways to boost participation, they said.
Youth voting up in 2018
Young voter turnout in 2018 was the highest for a midterm election in 25 years, according to exit poll calculations by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which is based at Tufts University and focuses on young people.
Roughly 31 percent of 18-29-year-olds turned out nationally for the 2018 midterms, up from 21 percent in 2014, according to CIRCLE. Even so, the vast majority of young people nationwide did not vote.
The youth rate was higher in five states with competitive gubernatorial races. Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Ohio had a combined average youth turnout rate of 35 percent, CIRCLE found.
David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, said it is ‘impossible to say’ what drove increases. It could have been caused by opposition to President Donald Trump or states with competitive races.
And those numbers still lagged behind the roughly 50 percent of eligible U.S. voters who cast ballots in the midterms. Wisconsin’s turnout was 61.7 percent, according to the United States Election Project, based at the University of Florida, which tracks voter turnout.
Four experts interviewed by the Center said getting more young people to the polls involves a lot more than one mobilization effort — even one that has millions of dollars behind it.
“If you ask me, ‘How can we have a solution that raises turnout by like 30 percentage points in one cycle?’ I don't think we have one,” CIRCLE Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg said.
Goats for votes
NextGen’s efforts in Wisconsin included door knocking, digital advertising, direct mail and a variety of events designed to connect with young people. The group had 66 staff and 1,756 volunteers at 32 colleges across Wisconsin.
At UW-Stevens Point, NextGen hosted a petting zoo with goats, alpacas, ducks and cows. At UW-Green Bay, NextGen held a carnival. Other tactics ranged from therapy dogs to giant Connect Four games.
“We’re turning voting into this fun, exciting thing,” said Sean Manning, former Wisconsin media manager for NextGen America. “It’s not that it has to be that way, it’s just, why can’t it be?”
The group also held rallies calling for increased gun control and opposing forced separation of undocumented immigrant families.
NextGen sent nearly 530,000 texts, knocked on nearly 180,000 doors and reached more than 580,000 young voters with advertising on Hulu, YouTube and Instagram.
Riazi remembers seeing NextGen’s advertisements — and although they were “ruining his life” because he could not skip them — the ads worked.
NextGen also targeted more than 166,000 young people ages 18-35 who never voted before, voted only once or voted a few times but not consistently.
Bercow said NextGen has kept staff in all 11 states and will be organizing through the 2020 election. But Becker wonders what will happen in 2022 and beyond.
“There’s no way to fund an effort to hold the hand of the 200-plus million eligible voters in the United States for every single election,” Becker said. “It’s just not feasible.”
Getting outside the college bubble
There were young people not in college whom NextGen did not reach — a problem Bercow said the group is trying to tackle.
For those in college in Wisconsin in 2018, messaging about voting was hard to avoid.
Brody Bien, a junior studying molecular biology at UW-Madison, said “pushy and annoying” canvassers knocked on his door, sometimes two or three times a day. Bien was already planning to vote.
By contrast, Chander Brown, a 20-year-old who lives just a half hour south of the Madison campus, was not contacted by anyone. Brown works for a cleaning company and lives with his parents in Stoughton, Wisconsin.
Brown deleted most of his social media accounts, so he is particularly hard to contact. In high school, Brown felt his vote would not count. He said his attitude changed over frustration with Trump and the influence of his father, who is passionate about politics.
“What mostly motivates me (to vote) is just for a change,” Brown said. “I would hope that something could change and that I didn’t just sit back and do nothing.”
Jacob Hoskins Jr., 17, has a deep skepticism toward politicians and the government. He is a student in the Legacy Program at Operation Fresh Start, a Madison nonprofit that helps young people finish their education and gain work experience. Hoskins is working on his high school diploma and developing construction skills.
“A vote’s not gonna change nothing,” Hoskins said.
Ryanne Wolfe, 21, a UW-Eau Claire junior, said she is discouraged Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump still won the presidency. She sat out the 2018 midterm election.
“I just didn’t really feel like my vote mattered too much,” she said.
No ‘magic bullet’
There are many potential strategies for increasing youth voter turnout, but Kawashima-Ginsberg cautioned there is “no one magic bullet.”
Fifteen states, plus the District of Columbia, have approved automatic voter registration, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit that works to improve democracy. Sixteen states plus D.C. pre-register young people even if they will not be 18 by the next election. One study found those two strategies together can boost youth voting.
Experts and advocates suggest other possibilities, including making Election Day a national holiday and lowering the voting age.
Becker said his organization is conducting a long-term study on how election officials — not just campaigns, nonprofits and political parties — can increase voter turnout, which he sees as more sustainable. Whatever the solution, Becker said, it needs to be nonpartisan.
“This is a long-term problem, and it’s not going to be solved because everybody gets a mailed ballot or everyone is automatically registered,” Becker said. “Some of them are good ideas but they’re not going to fundamentally change the turnout dynamic.”
John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, said on-the-ground mobilization and changing attitudes toward politics can encourage young people to vote.
Polling shows the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, mass shootings and reaction to Trump led to increases in the number of young people who thought political engagement was important, Della Volpe said.
CIRCLE’s director of impact Abby Kiesa said future voters also can be cultivated by parents or role models who are engaged politically and by learning about voting and discussing controversial issues at school.
“Those are experiences that when a young person does turn 18, it makes it more likely that they’ll have that identity to say, ‘I am a voter.’ ”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
THE WISCONSIN CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM (WWW.WISCONSINWATCH.ORG) COLLABORATES WITH OTHER NEWS MEDIA AND THE UW-MADISON SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM AND MASS COMMUNICATION. ALL WORKS CREATED, PUBLISHED, POSTED OR DISSEMINATED BY THE CENTER DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OR OPINIONS OF UW-MADISON OR ANY OF ITS AFFILIATES.