Will youth voting surge in Pa.? The data is mixed

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Young people register to vote outside a March for Our Lives gun control town hall at Universal Audenreid High School, in Greys Ferry

Young people register to vote outside a March for Our Lives gun control town hall at Universal Audenreid High School, in Greys Ferry, on Tuesday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

When Tahara Akmal’s daughter told her she wanted to attend the Women’s March in early 2017, she assumed they’d attend the local rally near their home in Reading.

“She said, ‘No, mom, we need to go to D.C.,” Akmal recalled. “’I want to be present. I want my voice to be heard.’”

That trip was followed by another to the March for Our Lives rally earlier this year in Washington, and then again Tuesday night to see teenage gun reform proponents and survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting in Philadelphia.

Akmal’s daughter, 18-year-old Sahar Kariem, said she’s felt charged up about politics ever since the 2016 election, and that a lot of her friends feel the same way.

“From what I’ve seen so far, I think it’s going to be a big young vote this year,” said Kariem.

Sahar Kariem, 18, residing in Reading, Pa., and originally of southern California will be a first-time voter during the upcoming mid-term elections.
Sahar Kariem, 18, residing in Reading, Pa., and originally of southern California will be a first-time voter during the upcoming mid-term elections. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Some political onlookers agree, arguing the combination of post-Parkland mobilization and Trump-related backlash will unleash a wave of young voters this fall.

After the Parkland shooting, people under 30 made up a considerably larger proportion of newly registered voters than they did in the months prior, according to analysis from the data firm TargetSmart. The pre- and post-Parkland disparity was largest in Pennsylvania, prompting media coverage and confident predictions from liberal strategists, who think the growth of this left-leaning voter block could portend victory in November.

Before this week’s gun reform event, volunteers combed the sidewalks outside Audenried High School in South Philadelphia looking for unregistered voters, people like Emily Klevan.

“I’m 19, and I am ashamed that I didn’t register earlier,” she said, laughing.

Klevan hails from the Philly suburbs and recently left for college in North Carolina. Over the last two years she’s gotten a lot more interested in politics, and says that’s common among her friends.

“There have been a lot more grassroots movements trying to get that to happen,” she said. “If we can follow through there I think we’re going to see a lot more change.”

Emily Klevan, 19, of Villanova, Pa., will be a first-time voter during the upcoming midterm elections.
Emily Klevan, 19, of Villanova, Pa., will be a first-time voter during the upcoming midterm elections. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Democratic strategists are banking on that follow through, and are encouraged by the TargetSmart data.

“I think it really demonstrates that the work we’ve been doing for the past two years is actually really having an impact,” said Jarett Smith, Pennsylvania youth director for NextGen America.

Backed by billionaire Tom Steyer, NextGen spent over $7 million in 2016 to mobilize young voters and plans to dole out another $3.5 million this year. So far, according to Smith, the group has registered 93,000 Pennsylvanians, the largest number of youth voters it’s signed up in any of the 11 states it has canvassed.

There is reason to believe, though, that Democrats are being overly optimistic.

One national analysis of the overall electorate found it looked about the same before and after the Parkland shooting, with young registrants making up an almost identical share of all registered voters.

In Pennsylvania, according to data provided by the state, a similar picture emerges.

Keystone Crossroads looked at an age breakdown of all registered voters in May 2018 — approximately three months after the Parkland shooting — and compared that to data from May 2014, right before the last round of off-year primaries.

Exactly eight percent of registrants in 2014 were aged 18-24. Four years later, that number was 8.1 percent.

The same held true for 25-to-34-year-olds, who made up 16.9 percent of registered voters in May 2014 and 17 percent in May 2018.

Registrants 18-24 (% of total) Registrants 25-34 (% of total)
May 2014 8.0% 16.9%
May 2018 8.1% 17.0%

TargetSmart used a different age range than the categories typically demarcated by state record keepers. By scrutinizing individual voter records, the firm was able to look at registrants 29 and under and thus use the same parameters for all states across the country, according to a spokesperson.

Between November 30, 2017 and February 14, 2018, the date of the Parkland shooting, 40,778 Pennsylvanians registered to vote — 18,450 (45.2 percent) of whom were under 30.

From February 14th until May 1st, 52,640 people registered to vote in Pennsylvania, and 32,310 (60.1 percent) were under 30.

Although that spike doesn’t appear to have made a dent in the overall numbers, it could signal enthusiasm, which could contribute to a larger-than-average youth turnout in November. Smith, with NextGen, points out that Philadelphia voters aged 18-34 were the only ones to go to the polls at a higher rate in the 2018 primary than the 2014 version.

Philadelphia, though, isn’t always the best predictor of what will happen across the state, and Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant and president of Eagle Consultant Group, is skeptical of a youth surge.

“Put me down as, I’ll believe it when I see it, because all of this talk right now is just talk,” said Nicholas.

He’s heard these kinds of proclamations before from Democrats, but when it comes to statewide campaigns, he said, the predictions have rarely panned out. He says bumps in youth enthusiasm haven’t yielded the kind of numbers that tip elections.

“I can see why Democrats are kind of lurching towards that, because they’ve been saying for years this is gonna happen,” Nicholas said. “And at some point, maybe like a stopped clock, they’ll get right once.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that Nicholas thinks Republicans can breathe easy in November. President Donald Trump is “without question” less popular now in Pennsylvania than we was on election day 2016, Nicholas said.

“It’s a brave new world for us, and I keep telling friends and clients you can look back and try and take lessons from 2016, but it’s never gonna be 2016 again,” he said.

Among the unknowns is whether 2018 will look a lot different than 2016 in terms of youth-voter participation.

“We’ll see. That’s the best answer I can give,” said Marcus Muli, 22, a recent graduate of Temple University. “I can at least guarantee my friends are gonna do it, because I’ll push them. But I can’t speak for all the youth in Pennsylvania.”

Marcus Muli, 22, of Ambler, Pa., is a campaign manager for a local candidate.
Marcus Muli, 22, of Ambler, Pa., is a campaign manager for a local candidate. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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