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Is this the year young people make history by actually voting? They will if just 1 in 4 cast ballots.

Once again, activists are predicting a high turnout of young voters in Tuesday's election. Will it happen?

Sebastian Avila, center, encourages students to pledge to vote on Election Day next Tuesday at Temple University on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. The goal was to ensure a massive young voter turnout next week.
Sebastian Avila, center, encourages students to pledge to vote on Election Day next Tuesday at Temple University on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. The goal was to ensure a massive young voter turnout next week.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The numbers don't lie: Young voters make up a major bloc of the electorate.

In fact, for the first time, there are more registered Pennsylvania voters ages 34 or younger (25.7 percent) than 65 and up (24 percent). If young people turn out to vote, they'll flex major muscle — enough to swing elections, shift policy, and change the nation's representation. Young voters can oust incumbents, flip seats from one party to another, make or break President Trump's agenda.

If they vote.


Because the thing is, young voters are always a major potential voting bloc.

But every election, it seems, they choose to sit home instead — especially the midterms. Young people register to vote at lower rates than older citizens, and even among registered voters, the young are less likely than any other age group to show up.

"I didn't vote in the presidential election," said Gianna Pirritano, 20, a psychology student at Temple University who was in Florida at the time. Pirritano knew she could have voted absentee, she said, but chose not to: "I was lazy. I was one of the lazy people who didn't vote last time and is now adamant to vote this time."

She was far from alone: In the 2016 presidential election, 55.4 percent of citizens aged 18 to 24 were registered to vote. Of those who were registered, 77.6 percent voted, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

And that's a presidential election. Turnout drops in midterms.

In 2014, the most recent midterm, 42.2 percent of citizens 18 to 24 were registered to vote nationwide, and of those, 40.7 percent voted, meaning fewer than 1 in 5 young adults voted. (Turnout was even lower in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.)

That means young people don't have their voices heard. When youth turnout is low and uneven, policies they may favor don't get supported, and candidates they support don't win. If young people care about one issue and older voters care about another, guess which side wins? No politician can focus on a group that doesn't actually vote.

Is it the year young people flock to the polls in a groundswell of enthusiasm that shapes the national agenda for years, if not decades, to come?

Democrats especially hope it is. Young voters tend to register as Democrats more than as Republicans and to self-identify as supporting progressive causes. In Pennsylvania, for example, 47.6 percent of current voters ages 18 to 24 are registered Democrats, while 31.2 percent are registered Republicans.

Why don’t young people vote?

"They haven't formed the habits to do it," said Laura C. Bucci, a political science professor at St. Joseph's University. For example, they may not know where their polling places are, because they haven't voted before. And young voters move more often than older voters and are more likely to register at home but live elsewhere, such as a college campus.

Research suggests young voters also hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to voting, Bucci said: Compared with other groups, young voters say they need significantly more research to feel they can or should vote.

>> VOTERS GUIDE: Look up the races and candidates on your ballot in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware

Natalie Brango, 21, knows the feeling.

"I've never voted before. I just felt that I wasn't really informed enough to make a decision," said Brango, a marketing student at Temple. "I didn't really do the research. I didn't really look very much into it."

Signs of youth voter interest (Really! Well, maybe)

This time, Brango said, she's making sure to vote.

"I still think I'm not as knowledgeable, but I'm more motivated to become knowledgeable," she said.

There are some signs of increased interest from young people like Brango this election.

For one, registrations from young people appear to be up, though it's hard to disentangle enthusiasm from broader demographic trends — millennials are projected to overtake baby boomers as the largest generation next year — and from massive efforts to mobilize young voters.

Another potential sign of enthusiasm: 40 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 say they are likely to vote, according to a national youth poll by Harvard University's Institute of Politics.

If 40 percent of young people actually cast a ballot, that would be historic.

Midterm turnout rarely cracks 20 percent for young Americans, according to Census Bureau data, and has only done so twice in the last three decades, when it reached 21 percent in 1986 and 1994.

Bucci expressed skepticism that the midterm turnout could move so quickly. Increasing turnout a few percentage points is a big deal, she said, and five points "would be massive."

Puppies and pizza: How to turn out young voters

About that massive effort to mobilize young voters: NextGen America, founded by the billionaire hedge fund manager and liberal megadonor Tom Steyer, has spent money on an effort to boost youth turnout and, ultimately, elect liberal candidates up and down the ballot.

The group says it is putting $33 million into 11 states, with $3.6 million going to Pennsylvania. That money goes to direct mailers, digital ads, and digital and print voter guides meant to steer young voters toward Democrats, and a boots-on-the-ground campaign that aims to have hundreds of volunteers knock on 70,000 doors and send 250,000 text messages in the campaign's last five days.

"We really want to create historic turnout," said Jarrett Smith, 27, state director for NextGen Pennsylvania.

Last Tuesday, a week before Election Day, Smith and other staffers and volunteers milled around a table in the center of Temple's campus, calling out to passing students: "Pledge to vote! Free pizza!"

In previous months, the group's focus was on registering young voters, signing up 41,160. Now its focus is on turning registrations into votes.

Research shows asking registrants to pledge to vote and make concrete plans has the potential to increase turnout. The NextGen Pennsylvania workers were all over the Temple students, trading pizza for pledge cards.

On Election Day, the group plans to make a scene on campuses. First, they'll attract attention using puppies, costumes, food, and more, then will urge the audience to get to the polls. Volunteers will provide rides, knock on doors, and try to get groups of students to vote together.

"We really want to make voting as fun as possible," Smith said.

Will it work, puppies and pledges to vote? Will 40 percent of young people vote, nearly doubling the highest peak in decades?

If they do, young people could become a political force to be reckoned with. They could reshape the electoral landscape.

If they vote.


Staff writer Michele Tranquilli contributed to this article.