After 17 students were killed in a Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Nick Gothard felt the paranoia set in at his Ashburn, Va. high school.
He watched as Parkland students turned their grief into political activism and decided to do the same.
“I thought it was truly inspiring because I can’t imagine something like that happening to me,” Gothard said.
He pre-registered to vote in April and became an official Virginia voter on his 18th birthday in May. He plans to vote in November for Virginia State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat running for Congress against incumbent Republican Barbara Comstock, and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, over Republican challenger Corey Stewart.
Progressive political organizations are hoping young voters like Gothard will register in droves in key states like Virginia to turn Congress blue.
The groups want to register 50,000 18-year-old voters across the country.
NextGen America, a left-leaning group whose zealous voter-registration push prompted a new state law last year to protect college students’ contact information, is leading the effort.
Political organizations, especially left-leaning ones, have long targeted college campuses to register voters. Now the groups are framing their efforts around gun safety issues to reach people who could still be in high school or recently graduated.
That’s fine for Gothard. Gun safety is one of the most important issues to him, he said.
“The stakes are too high to stay home in November,” Gothard said. “We need a government that checks and balances itself. We don’t feel like we have that right now.”
Voters under 25 in Virginia have registered in higher numbers than last year. The state doesn’t keep data on only 18-year-olds.
In the first six months of 2018, there’s been a 14.6 percent increase in voter registration among Virginians under 25 compared to the same time last year.
Between January and February of this year — the Parkland shooting was Feb. 14 — there was a 16 percent increase in registration among Virginians under 25.
Young voters feel empowered by seeing peers take civic responsibility seriously, said Abby Kiesa, director of Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The school also runs the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, which tracks voting trends among college students.
Younger voters generally vote with the Democrat Party, Kiesa found in her research. That held true in an analysis Kiesa wrote about last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Republicans aren’t trying to mobilize youth also.
“Because there’s this narrative that all young people are liberal and Democratic, you don’t see them as much,” Kiesa said. “Their work isn’t as high-profile.”
Turning Point USA, a national organization for conservative youth, did not respond to a request for comment on nationwide registration efforts. Several Virginia chapters also didn’t respond for comment.
Young conservatives are likely being registered in smaller community groups, like campus clubs, Kiesa said.
State chapters of the Young Republicans organization likewise didn’t respond for comment.
But just because young voters register doesn’t mean they’ll vote.
Midterm elections tend to have lower turnout than other contests.
In the 2014 congressional elections, 315,000 of Virginia’s voters under 25 were registered to vote, according to U.S. Census data, and 112,000 voted.
By the 2016 presidential election, 501,000 young voters were registered. That time, 447,000 of them cast a vote. It was still the lowest turnout by age group.
About 366,000 voters under 25 went to the polls in last year’s gubernatorial election, according to exit polling analyzed by Kiesa and her team at Tufts. The census didn’t track the 2017 election and the state doesn’t break turnout data out by age.
Young voters tend to come out when candidates speak directly to them, Kiesa said, and focus on issues they consider important.
And even though NextGen isn’t a candidate, the organization’s message is resonating with Gothard.
“There are some issues that are too important to sit by and let them happen,” he said.