Will local millennials defy traditional voter ‘drop-off’ patterns?

By Sarah Haas and Nia Prater

The voting phenomenon widely known as the millennial “drop-off” may not hold to be entirely true for young people in the Chicago area on Nov. 8.

A combination of factors, including registration drives on college campuses and the contentiousness of some hotly contested national and local races, seem to have engaged and energized young people in the area, many of whom may be poised to turn out in record numbers on election day, according to Alex Morgan, national field and training director for Progressive Turnout Project, a grassroots political organization based in Northbrook that encourages local Democrats to vote.

“Of voters under the age of 24, 93 percent told us that they plan to vote in the upcoming election,” Morgan said.

Among those new voters are college students like Nia Adurogbola, a freshman at Northwestern University. She is among the students crowded around a 60-inch flat screen television in her dorm last Sunday for the presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And while she described the debate as “kind of a mess…just like our political state right now,” she still declared that she’s “really excited” about the prospect of voting in her first election.

“I just turned 18 in June, so I’m ready to vote,” Adurogbola said.

If turnout among millennials in the area does prove to be significant, it would be a dramatic turnaround from past elections, which saw very little participation or interest from young voters. In its revealing study entitled “Why Millennials Don’t Vote for Mayor,” the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting media innovation and journalism, reported that only 21.5 percent of millennial voters participated in their respective local election in 2014.

In recognition of that alarming record of non-voting by young people, local colleges embarked on crusades this fall to encourage their students to register and become educated on both local and national politics.

NU Votes, a non-partisan initiative sponsored by Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement in Evanston, reported that a record-breaking 96 percent of its freshman class registered to vote during its fall drive.

“It’s been awesome,” said Rabeya Mallick, a NU Votes organizer and Northwestern University alumna. “There’s a good chunk of students deciding where they want to register. They want to get information about who’s on their ballot.”

An effort at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park also yielded positive results.

“We actually already registered just under 800 people either to vote or get absentee ballots,” said Andrew Corzo, an organizer for the university’s Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign.

Loyola University Chicago reported that 250 students either registered for the first time, updated their registration or requested an absentee ballot, according to Benjamin Aldred, an election subject specialist at the university’s Chicago library, who called the effort a “very good turnout.”

All three universities have even offered to mail registrations and absentee ballots to make it more convenient for students to vote.

“Making sure that people are actually mailing in their ballots, mailing in their registration forms…that is a big obstacle,” said Corzo. “Going to the post office can be a hassle at times. We want to make sure that’s not an obstacle at all.”

But the stark contrasts between some candidates and the raucousness of the campaigns has animated some young voters to the point that they have actually taken it upon themselves to get involved at both the grassroots and national levels.

“We have seen a membership increase this fall due to the election,” said Rachel Neuburger, president of the University of Chicago College Democrats. “This is a historic campaign, and students are realizing how important it is that they work to see the best candidate win in November.”

That enthusiasm is tempered by the disenchantment that many young people feel about their political choices. The failure of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to capture the Democratic presidential nomination is still a stinging blow to many millennials.

Sanders captured the hearts of many young voters by speaking to a lot of the issues that appeal to them, particularly issues surrounding education and college debt.

“One of the things I really care about is education,” said Tess Weiner, “So I research some of the people and changes on the ballot pertinent to the education system.”

With Sanders out of the race, it is not entirely clear whether those Sanders backers will remain engaged in the political process and show up at the polls, says Kerri Milita, an assistant professor at Illinois State University, where she focuses on American politics and public policy.

“Many young voters were enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders and felt disenchanted with the nomination process,” Milita said.

Among the most salient reasons for the apathy of young voters, according to The Knight Foundation, are lack of trust in local government and overall indifference to elections. But as the enthusiasm around Sanders indicated, young people will engage if politicians appeal directly to them.

“If you want to engage young voters, you need to talk about issues they care about,” Milita said.

Photo at top: Students at Northwestern University register to vote at the "NU Votes" booth at the Norris University Center.(Sarah Haas/Medill)