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Despite Push To Mobilize Youth To The Polls, Turnout Remains Low

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Vote buttons stack with red and blue colors

The 18 to 25-year-old demographic is one of the largest voting blocks. But how much of that group cast ballots? Elections supervisors and a political science professor speak about how much influence the so-called “youth vote” really has.

“The youth vote is the holy grail, not only in Florida, but in other places around the world," says University of Florida Political Science professor Dan Smith.

He says while politicians often seek out votes from recent high school grads and college-aged students, they rarely get it.

“Younger voters, typically while they register to vote, do not turn out to vote," said Smith.

This theory held true in the 2016 presidential election, where President Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton.

"We had about 2.4 million registered voters 18 to 29-years-old and a little less than 53% of them turned out to vote," said Smith.

Overall turnout in the 2016 presidential election was close to 70%. Smith says the ones driving up the average are the baby boomers.

"If you look at voters 65 and older about 80% of those registered turned out to vote," said Smith.

That was in 2016. Recent protests around social justice issues have brought out large swaths of young people and there’s energy building to turn those new activists into voters. But signs so far don’t exactly show that. In Hillsborough County, voters 18 to 25 had an 11% turnout in the March 2020 Primary, taking up only 5% of the ballots cast. In the same election, the 66-year-old and up voting block accounted for 36% of total ballots cast. They’re the two largest voting blocks in the county.

In Leon County voters 18-25 is the largest voting block. Yet, only about 61-hundred people in that age group cast ballots. More than 24-thousand people 66 and older did the same.

Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux attributes the difference in youth registration versus turnout to voter registration efforts targeted at kids.

"We have a statutory obligation to go to the high schools and offer voter registration at least once a year. And also to visit college campuses and do the same thing," said Lux.

Registration doesn’t necessarily mean turnout. Lux says he did a small study to find what drives young voters to the ballot box.

“They don’t worry about a lot about things like foreign trade, they don’t worry a lot about national defense because there’s no real impact for them. Versus go back to the 60’s the 70’s where we were sending 18 and 19-year-olds to the other side of the world to fight in a war that was very unpopular. Those people actually did care about national defense," said Lux.

He says their focus is usually very nearsighted.

"During the presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination everyone was talking about free college tuition," said Smith. "That gets everybody’s attention sure because the people who are struggling to get through school or working to get through school for them that’s a big issue."

But when it’s an issue that doesn’t directly impact them, young voters tend not to be that concerned. Another note about young voters: new registrants tend to register with no party affiliation.

"Younger voters register as No Party Affiliates," said UF Poly Sci professor Dan Smith again. "We know that no party affiliates turn out less. And do not get the same kind of cues, that means signals from the parties because they are not known quantities. They don’t have experience casting a ballot. They haven’t registered with a party, so there at higher risk for those."

He also says that sometimes younger voters just don’t know how to vote. He stresses that with vote-by-mail it is even worse.

"Younger voters typically do not cast vote by mail ballots in Florida. Only 1 in 5 cast an absentee ballot in the 2016 general election compare that to 43% of those who are 65 and older," said Smith.

Smith says that could make this election even harder for young voters to participate when both parties are pushing for voters to cast ballots by mail due to COVID-19.

"Almost 3.5% of mail ballot cast by younger voters were rejected for some type of problem. Either they were late or they had a problem with the signature," said Smith.

A big hurdle for them: ensuring their signatures match.

"To them, they're sending money by a Venmo, or they're going to Publix and scribbling their signature on the scratchpad and it doesn’t really matter what shows up there the transactions going to go through," said Smith. "When you’re voting by mail the signature the wet signature on the back of your envelope not only has to arrive on election day by 7 pm but the signature has to match what’s on the voter file."

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.