Election 2018

‘Young and naive’? Inside Pennsylvania’s nation-leading youth voter surge

Registered voters in Pa. under 35 now outnumber those over 64.

Students wait to vote in November 2016 at CMU.

Students wait to vote in November 2016 at CMU.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Rose Strauss is 18 years old.

She’s also “young and naive,” according to Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor Scott Wagner, who made that comment after Strauss asked a question about climate change at a recent Montgomery County town hall.

Gillian Herzog is also 18. Call her naive at your own risk: She’s one of a growing number of young Pennsylvanians who are not only planning to vote this November, but are encouraging their peers to do so as well.

Registered voters aged 34 and under in the commonwealth currently outnumber those over 64, according to July statistics from the Pa. Dept. of State. That younger cohort accounts for 22 percent of the state’s population — but 25 percent of people registered to vote.

And their ranks in the electorate are growing.

Young Pennsylvanians are also registering to vote in higher numbers than older residents, data crunched by a Democratic analytics firm shows. TargetSmart requested new voter registration information from the Pa. State Dept. from a couple months before the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and compared it to info from a couple months after. The firm’s analysis focused on the share of new registrants by age.

Statewide, the share of new voters under 30 (the cut-off TargetSmart chose) increased by 16 percent  — more than anywhere in the country. Youth in Allegheny County and Philadelphia helped drive that increase, but rural counties like Clarion, Juniata, and Westmoreland saw big jumps as well.

In Berks County specifically, people under the age of 30 accounted for just under 50 percent of new voters before Parkland. After? More than 70 percent.

Herzog can take some of the credit. She organized a voter registration drive at her Berks high school in March that resulted in nearly 300 kids signing up. She also helped form a peer activist club and organize two walkouts at her school following the Parkland shooting. (Her cousin attends the Florida school, but wasn’t hurt.)

“I think my generation gets kind of a bad rap for a lot of things,” she said, but even if they act apathetic, she believes they “do really care.”

Herzog contacted Indivisible Berks for assistance in organizing one of the walkouts. This summer, she’ll canvass with the progressive activist group to encourage people to go to the polls in November.

“We think that it’s very important to get out the vote,” she said, and to impress upon people that “even if they don’t think someone is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” they should still cast a ballot.

How do you do, fellow kids?

A similar scenario played out across the commonwealth, encouraged in part by the nonpartisan nonprofit Inspire U.S., which operates on a premise that’s still considered novel:

What if kids encouraged other kids to register to vote?

It happened in 32 Pennsylvania schools during the 2017-18 school year, resulting in nearly 3,000 students registering.

Inspire enlists students in 10 states to organize registration drives. One of the leaders in Pennsylvania was Chelsea Bisi at Westmoreland County’s Derry Area High School, which registered 88 percent of eligible students. Post-Parkland, voters under 30 accounted for nearly three-quarters of new registrants in Westmoreland.

“Youth today often feel disenfranchised by the political system and cynicism of America’s political process. … So why should you, a senior who is at a turning point in your life, decide to play an active role in our democracy and register to vote?” Bisi wrote in her school’s newspaper. “With our graduation looming, it is imperative to prepare for the responsibilities that will accompany this monumental occasion in our lives. Voting is the foundation of our republic.”

There are also more traditional youth voter registration efforts underway in Pennsylvania, including a $3.5 million initiative from the San Francisco-based progressive group NextGen America.

Backed by Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager who’s risen to prominence as the driving force behind a campaign to impeach President Donald Trump, NextGen America’s aims are Democratic. But Victoria Vinall, the group’s Pennsylvania media manager, said voter registration is nonpartisan.

In Pennsylvania, NextGen operations are split up into five regions. There are targeted areas — Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Philly suburbs, Lehigh Valley — and targeted districts including eight congressional races. Vinall said right now their best performing team is in State College.

NextGen has a paid staff of more than 60, which will double in the fall, focused on general turnout and statewide races.

Back to school

In the fall, NextGen teams will head to college campuses across Pa. to “mobilize the youth vote and register young voters.” Vinall said thousands of students, many from out of state, will be registered to vote in Pennsylvania races. Much of this happens during move-in week.

“A lot of kids are already filling out lots of paperwork,” Vinall explained, “so it’s really easy to get them to register.”

There will also be weekend door-knocking in student housing, voter transportation provided on Election Day, a “party at the polls,” food trucks, festivals, petting zoos, and puppies — all to “get students there.”

The Berks County Young Republicans have also been targeting college campuses, 27-year-old chairman Josh Fidler said.

The group was officially recognized by the Pennsylvania Young Republicans in March 2017, and since then has focused on chartering college Republican groups at Berks County’s higher ed institutions. They’ve been successful so far at Penn State Berks, Kutztown University and Albright College.

“We want our generation to vote,” Fidler said. “Hopefully, they’re on our side.”

More youth voters = a blue wave?

As of July, Democrats 18 to 34 in Pa. outnumbered Republicans of the same age by more than 400,000 registered voters.

Many of those people live in Allegheny County and Philadelphia. Counties where young Republicans outnumber young Democrats include Butler, Franklin, Lancaster, Westmoreland and York.

Fidler, who served in the Navy, said his top issue for the midterm election is the Second Amendment. For members of the Young Republicans, “pro-life issues are probably the most unifying thing we’ve all had in common,” he said. In general, he believes Republicans on college campuses are energized by what he called “rude” treatment by people on the other side of aisle.

NextGen’s Vinall, meanwhile, said they’re “seeing young people are more progressive than ever before and especially right now.”

“We’ve been running our program in Pennsylvania since 2016,” she said, “and we’re seeing young people are more energized than before. They’re very anti-Trump and very strong.”

For 18-year-old Herzog, she’s looking at candidates’ stances on immigration and income inequality. She pointed to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old DSA member who beat a powerful Democratic incumbent in New York, as a guiding point for the future.

“I hope that the Democratic party can support what young people and what the majority of the population wants.”