As the Democratic primaries take place, the youth turnout numbers are in question as Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign struggles to maintain momentum against former Vice President Joe Biden in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Sanders won an average of 58-percent of the youth vote in every state participating in the Super Tuesday primaries. However, exit polls show, compared to 2016, youth turnout is down in the majority of Super Tuesday states.
“I think people are discouraged and think their votes don’t matter,” Ronaye Anderson, a sophomore political science major said.
In 2016, Sanders won the Michigan primary against his opponent former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton obtaining 81-percent of the youth vote and overall 49-percent of the state. That changed in 2020, Biden won Michigan by 52-percent compared to Sanders’ 36-percent.
Anderson thinks there’s a disconnect between 2016 and 2020 due to the fact the youth are scared to get invested in a candidate they support but they know won’t be successful.
“A lot of people I’m around feel like Bernie got cheated last time,” Anderson said. “They’re really afraid for it to happen again and they don’t want to put effort into something they don’t think will be fruitful in the end.”
Nick Honkala, a regional organizing director in Western PA for NextGen America is more confused than upset over the low turnout for the primaries.
“It’s definitely been the question that’s puzzling a lot of people especially with Bernie Sanders running again this time around and you have a lot of calls to invigorate young people and get them to come out to the polls,” Honkala said. “I don’t have the best explanation as to what we’re seeing.”
In states like Texas and California, hundreds of students stood in line and waited hours to vote at their local polling places. Long lines and inaccessible polling places seem to be a part of the bigger issue regarding youth turnout.
“It’s really hard to get to the polls in the South, they make it hard for people to vote not just people in general but for lower-income communities on purpose,” Anderson said. “That’s a real problem, it’s something people have been talking about, that no one’s tried to rectify at least on the governmental level.”
Jahonna Lipscomb, junior political science major emphasizes the role voter suppression plays in the lack of high youth turnout numbers.
“Voter discrimination has always been an issue; it’s never going to go away,” Lipscomb said. “It’s just going to be a new group that will be discriminated against.”
In addition to that, Honkala said voter discrimination demoralizes students from casting their ballot.
“I don’t think polling place accessibility was substantially better in 2016 than in 2020, but I do think that is a discouraging factor for students,” Honkala said. “I saw it in California and Michigan and at universities that students were waiting multiple hours in line to get to their polling locations and ultimately cast a ballot. I saw students quoted saying ‘I don’t have time for this. I can’t wait in this line it’s not worth it.’”
Apart from voter discrimination, campaigns relating to young people is key to drawing out the youth vote.
“I think campaigns should try to actually understand,” Lipscomb said. “A big part of Hillary Clinton’s downfall was her method trying to appeal to Black youth. Their appeal is so backward that it’s surface level. They use popular culture to appeal instead of using actual conversation.”
Honkala, who worked on Representative Connor Lamb’s campaign, reiterates communication and engagement are the success of a thriving campaign and high turnout.
“Campaigns are dedicated to talking to the voters who are likely to turn out, that’s their main priority, people who vote frequently,” Honkala said. “Their priority is to make sure those voters are heading to the polls. They aren’t quite as focused on reaching young people or people who don’t vote quite as much which is where we [NextGen] come in.”
Organizing on campus, sending texts and knocking on doors are just a few ways organizers like Honkala draw political engagement out of students.
“We are doing more organizing with these student populations with younger people who campaign aren’t reaching out to quite as much to subsequent that effort and ultimately see success at the ballot box come November 2020,” Honkala said.
Ultimately Honkala states it’s more about the effort put into educating and informing the youth.
“It’s just a matter of reaching out to these students meeting them where they are on social media, texting them, calling them if you can and talking to them on campus,” Honkala said. “Those efforts go a long way to ultimately boost turnout for these elections.”