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As mid-terms loom, is targeting young voters a lost cause?

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Mrs. Gemstone via Flickr
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The upcoming midterm election may mark a return to a long-standing trend: the absence of young voters. Lee County officials and those in politics say a repeat of the strong youth vote in 2020 may not occur in November.

Lee County’s youngest voters are not likely to impact the 2022 midterm elections despite efforts to encourage voting, the supervisor of elections and others involved in politics say.

Voters aged 18 to 29 have not had a large presence in recent midterm elections. According to the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office, youth voters comprised 5% of the turnout in the 2014 midterms and 8% in 2018.

Dr. Joseph Ross, assistant professor of political science at Florida Gulf Coast University, said age is correlated to voter turnout.

“Young people are moving around a bit more and not necessarily tied to their community,” Professor Ross said. “You tend to, as you get older, have more resources that help with voting. You need to be able to take time off of work and have the time to research.”

He said young people are deterred from registering because of how difficult it can be, especially those enrolled in college and living away from home. There are students who do not know where to register.

“We put everything on the voter,” Ross said. “You need to figure out when to register, where to register, how to do it, where you’re going to vote … we make it really hard for people.”

Chantelle Bloise Elmahmoudi, 23, of Cape Coral, agreed. “I honestly do not even know how to get mail-in voting to myself,” she said. She believes more people would vote if it was easier to do so.

Ross said that young voters also feel underrepresented because older audiences tend to be more targeted.

“Politicians aren’t motivated to listen to the group that turns out the least,” Ross said. “They are going to pay attention to the voters who are most likely to show up, who tend to be older. If you don’t pay attention to politics, then the politicians aren’t going to pay attention to you.”

“Politicians aren’t motivated to listen to the group that turns out the least. They are going to pay attention to the voters who are most likely to show up, who tend to be older. If you don’t pay attention to politics, then the politicians aren’t going to pay attention to you.”
Dr. Joseph Ross, assistant professor of political science at Florida Gulf Coast University

Ross said the loss of daily newspapers plays a role in the decline of voter engagement. “Every time we see that some newspaper gets cut…what they’re losing out on is somebody paying attention to local politics,” Ross said. According to a Pew Research Center study, there has been a 40% decline in weekday newspaper circulation since 2015.

“For the young voter, we push the high school registration,” Lee County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Doyle said. “Plus, we push it on social media."

Tiffany Hatcher, 28, said she has lived in Collier and Sarasota Counties, and has volunteered for both election offices when she was younger.

“I usually vote for everything,” Hatcher said. “If you want to vote, just do your research. And if you don’t care, then don’t vote because that’s pointless.”

Doyle said that people in the age range of 50 to 70 vote the most.

“The reason why the youngers, 18 to 29, don’t vote, because they’re not really thinking about it,” Doyle explained.

“The reason why the youngers, 18 to 29, don’t vote, because they’re not really thinking about it.”
Lee County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Doyle

Every year, the Lee County elections office invites high schools to participate in voter registration challenges to raise voter awareness among young people. The goal is to register eligible voters and to get more young voters to the polls.

Last school year, nine Lee County high schools participated, and 691 students were registered and pre-registered to vote. As part of the program, students get familiarized with casting ballots in a mock election.

Kiera Rogers of Fort Myers is 18 and said she plans to vote in November. “I know that not a single one of my friends have mentioned anything about the midterm elections,” Rogers said. “Neither do they have any inclination to vote in the midterm elections.”

Doyle said parent encouragement increases young voter turnout and that the point is to get someone to the polls once. “If a voter votes the first time that he [or she] is eligible to vote, they’ll make it a lifelong habit,” he said.

Twenty-eight-year-old Tyler Young of Fort Myers is an example of that. “My parents are voters, and so I went to my first election with my mom,” Young said. He voted in the 2018 midterms and said he will be voting this November.

Chantelle Bloise Elmahmoudi also believes parents should step up when it comes to voter involvement.

“I think that voting, in general, should be more talked about among family members because … it is not up to teachers to do all of the teaching about life to students,” she said.

Kari Lerner is chair of the Lee County Democratic Party and believes that young people don’t understand the importance of state and local governments.

“I think they didn’t realize that most school board elections and our judge elections were decided in the primary,” she said. “Everyone looks at the federal. And yet…it’s the local government that impacts your day-to-day lives.”

Michael Molczyk, an 18-year-old from Fort Myers, said he is not familiar with midterm elections. “Most local elections, I’m a little clueless about,” Molczyk said. “I do want to look more into it.”

Lerner said what should get young Democrats out to vote this year is the issue of body autonomy after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.

“It enlightened them to the fact that our government requires ongoing participation,” Lerner said. “You can’t take anything for granted. And you can have what you thought was settled law, and it can be overturned in an election cycle.”

Scott Santamaria, founder and president of Gulf State Strategies in Tallahassee, said the youth voting bloc is extremely unreliable. He said he has consulted for Republican candidates for more than 20 years, and identified the Republican voting bloc as 55 and older.

“The younger the voter, the lower down the priority list they really are,” he said. “Now, we always try to push them to vote, but very rarely does it work.”

“The younger the voter, the lower down the priority list they really are. Now, we always try to push them to vote, but very rarely does it work.”
Scott Santamaria, founder and president of Gulf State Strategies in Tallahassee

One struggle with getting young people to the polls is that they’re starting to veer away from the two major parties. The members of Generation Z and the younger Millennials tend to be liberal or apolitical or antipolitical, according to Santamaria.

“They see what is going on with both parties, and they don’t like it…so they tend not to vote,” he added.

“The younger [voters] are not picking a party, a major party, because they don’t believe in it,” Lee Elections Supervisor Doyle said. “They don’t want to be labeled.” He added that the no-party affiliates are increasing steadily.

Lee County Elections data shows that in 2018, the two major parties were evenly split at about 8,000 young voters per party. There were 7,281 voters who were not affiliated with a major party, an increase from 3,665 in 2014.

Historically, midterm election turnouts are always lower than the presidential election.

“Except, this year you’ve got an energy level on the Republican side because the Biden administration is going after President Trump,” Santamaria said. “On the left, you have the Supreme Court decision of Roe. Now, will that bring out the young voters? That’s always a question mark.”

Santamaria added that elections are about saturation. He said that 95 to 98% of congressional seats are safe because the office holders will be re-elected without having to campaign too aggressively. He said those incumbents don’t need to spend the money that presidential candidates have to spend, so midterm elections aren’t as visible to the public.

“People will not pay attention to elections until you throw 20 mail pieces at them,” Santamaria said.

Still politics and elections can be full of surprises, and so could turnout among certain age groups, according to FGCU's Ross.

“There’s no real way to know until the election comes,” he said.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.
Gwendolyn Salata is an FGCU journalism student.