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Young Voter Engagement In This Year's Election


This week, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey beat back a primary challenge from Congressman Joe Kennedy III. This caught some attention for a couple of reasons. It marked the first time ever that a Kennedy lost a statewide election in Massachusetts. But there was also this - Markey is 74. Joe Kennedy is just 39 and wasn't even born when the senator began his political career. But the incumbent held on, thanks in part to support from young progressive voters.

Markey also received a key endorsement from New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star of the Democratic Party and a rising progressive leader. So we were wondering, how else might young voters have an impact on this November's national and state elections?

To talk about that, we've called Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. She is the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE. That's a research center that focuses on the civic engagement of millennials, and it's based at Tufts University. And she's with us now.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

KEI KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: You're welcome. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: So I'm assuming that most people would think that Congressman Kennedy - he's the great-nephew of former President John F. Kennedy - and, of course, Edward Kennedy, Ted Kennedy represented Massachusetts in the Senate, you know, for decades. You'd think his name would still carry a lot of weight, but here we are. What do you think is significant about Senator Markey's victory, given his strong support from younger voters?

KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: What Ed Markey's campaign did wonderfully well is he really met young people where they were and really relied on young people's expertise they have about young people themselves. So unlike maybe many candidates, they really focused on approaching TikTok as a way to spread their messages and really highlighted young people's leadership there and also really probably listened to young people themselves about what young people care about beyond just saying, he is a co-author of Green New Deal.

So there's a lesson moving forward for any candidate from any party to really think about how to leverage the work that young people are already doing and how much they already know. And one of the things to add to that in why perhaps the member of the Kennedy family may have lost is that young people really aren't into brand and labels as much as they are into the values that candidates hold.

MARTIN: You know, it's been a sort of a stereotype for years that younger voters are less engaged, less likely to come out. That's been changing, hasn't it?

KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: It sure has. Young people really broke all expectations about participation in the 2018 midterm election, where young people turned out at almost twice as high of a rate as the previous midterm for youth. And although that rate was still lower than older voters, but as a youth bloc, the young people really achieved something that was considered impossible - to get to close to 30% turnout, according to voter file. And no other generation had ever done that, including the boomers.

So that was one thing. But the other thing that we've been watching is that since 2016, we have been tracking how much young people have been coming out to the street for marches and protests because that's considered a really sort of a highly committed form of civic engagement. So it's not like signing a petition online. It's not even just voting every presidential election. It takes work, and it takes time and organization, so we think it's one way to really track heavy political involvement.

So they're not only voting, but they're doing many other things. We also found that they're registering each other, too, and really talking explicitly to each other about voting in election.

MARTIN: You know, that's fascinating because I think some people might have this idea that people who protest - that's all they do. And what you're seeing is the fact that there is such a large percentage of younger people who have gone out and participated in protests indicates that they are potential voters, that they are more likely to vote. That's interesting.

KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: They are correlated with each other. So they are participating in protests and marches, they're also more likely to say they intend to vote, or they're already registered.

MARTIN: What about this idea that I think people have is that younger voters lean progressive? We've seen that in some races. Certainly, younger voters who were attracted to Bernie Sanders were - as a presidential candidate were more likely to consider themselves progressive. But is that really true across the board? I mean, we also see these, you know, young conservative organizations, young Republican organizations. These organizations get a lot of support, you know, from national figures. Do younger voters tend to lean progressive?

KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: Yeah. So you hit right on on the kind of complication of statistics, right? So on one hand, we're watching young people come out to Democratic primaries and support Bernie Sanders by, like, 7-3 - huge margin. And then you're also hearing from other young people who are thinking of a new kind of Republican Party. And then we often don't hear from the middle, which are not participating in primaries, so we don't know that.

The fact is, really young people are a diverse electorate in terms of demographics but also ideology. What we do know just looking at the House votes every two years is the young people are, in fact, leaning more and more toward the Democratic Party, meaning that, you know, anywhere between 50% to now 66% of young people voted for the Democratic candidate in the last House race in 2018. And that was the most Democratic-leaning electorate ever for young people.

That said, it doesn't mean all of those 66% of the young people are progressive. A lot of those young people are, in fact, moderates who would be perfectly happy with Joe Biden and would not think about voting for Bernie Sanders.

MARTIN: Well, so given everything you said, you know, you've got this new index that provides some insight on how younger - young voters might shape this year's state and local elections across the country. Is there anything that people should be thinking about as November gets closer?

KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: Everybody, including candidates but also the community stakeholders, too, need to work toward removing all barriers for young people to be able to vote, regardless of who they choose. But again, the most important thing for every candidate, especially in those districts and states where votes will be close, is to understand the demographics and understand the values and the priorities for young people by actually talking to those young people.

MARTIN: That was Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. She is the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE. It's based at Tufts University.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, thanks so much for talking with us.

KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.