What it took to get record youth voter turnout in Virginia this year

Wmc Fbomb Ballot Box Wikimedia 12517

This year in Virginia, we had a slate of really compelling, diverse, young candidates who were more representative of Virginians than I think the usual slates of candidates are. We were excited about helping get them elected.

My team at the organization NextGen America and I started talking with students about the elections this past spring, when we identified some key leaders on campuses across the state. Then, when students started showing up in August, we felt like we couldn’t hand out registration clipboards fast enough: August is one of the most important times for student organizing, because all of the first-years need to register for the first time and a lot of upperclassmen need to update their registration with a new address.

I also went to UVA the week after the rally in Charlottesville in August. We registered more than 1,000 people in a single weekend there. Students didn’t necessarily say that they were registering because of what had happened, but I had never seen students register to vote at quite that scale. I think they realized how politically important Virginia is for this year’s election.

Things slowed down in September, but we still registered people by going to classrooms and knocking on a lot of doors, particularly on a lot of dorm doors. We would help people make a plan for the election, covering everything they had to do to make voting part of their day, from what time they were going to vote, to who they were going to go vote with, to how they were going to get there. We would say, “so you’re getting out of biology class at 10:15 — are you going to vote between Bio and English?” It helped people visualize election day.

I think the reason youth voter turnout is normally low is that finding their polling place, voter ID laws, and where they’re registered to vote — at home or at school — is confusing for a lot of students. I think people who don’t feel informed about the election also don’t want to vote incorrectly. So especially in a year like this, with so many local-level races, which are so important for actually impacting people’s lives, we wanted to make sure that people felt educated about the candidates and able to make a decision when they get to the ballot box.

It was a really incredible year to do this work. It’s been such a hard year for so many young people who feel like their identities are under attack. Our team at Next Gen is majority woman and our volunteer base is also a lot of women who are feeling empowered to take action.

But I always say that getting to the ballot box is just the first step of being a good citizen. It’s important that we make sure that these candidates know these young people turned out in record numbers and that we expect them to stay on the courses they promised in terms of the issues we care about and reasons we voted for them. We’re planning on holding elected officials accountable and making sure we’re advocating for the issues that are really important.

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Hannah Bristol
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