Voters select their candidates on Election Day at Broad Run High School in Ashburn in 2020. (Megan Lee / VCU CNS)
By Cassandra Loper / Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — Roughly three years ago, Maria Reynoso determined local policy issues and election information were not readily available or easily digestible to the average voter, and especially younger voters.
Reynoso now runs We Vote Virginia, a nonpartisan digital media resource to help voters become more informed.
“What my focus when creating the organization, and I guess my mission, was really to make it incredibly accessible and fun and engaging to learn about local politics,” Reynoso said.
The most critical change happens in local and state politics, according to Reynoso. Virginia voter turnout traditionally drops off between presidential elections. Candidates are vying for U.S. House of Representatives seats in Congress this year, with other local races and initiatives on the ballot throughout the state’s districts.
Political organizers and candidates are watching to see if they pull younger voters to the polls in an election that could change the balance of power in Congress. They hope that more education on the importance of voting, and how to vote, can develop a consistent habit among young voters whose participation can be a wildcard.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s VCU Votes Student Coalition is a network of the university’s students, faculty and staff that promotes voter engagement on campus, according to the VCU Votes website.
“Younger voters are considered a wildcard because they’re still very new to voting, and I think also, they’re still new to the democratic process as a whole,” said Cameron Hart, director of partnerships for VCU Votes Student Coalition.
Young voters understand the urgency of issues, such as climate change, according to Hart, and it can motivate them to the polls.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties of Virginia could do more in terms of encouraging young people to vote by making appearances on college campuses, Hart said.
Generation X, millennials and Generation Z make up over 46% of the Virginia population, according to American Community Survey data by the U.S. Census Bureau. That percentage is totaled from the categories of ages 20-54, although the generations are ages 10-57. Eligible Gen Z and millennial voters ages 20-44 account for over a third of the population, based on the census data.
Virginia young voter turnout ages 18-29 has been a mixed bag in the past few elections, according to the Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE. That age group is most commonly used by researchers, versus a precise snapshot of voter participation by generation.
The 18-29 voter turnout more than doubled in the 2018 midterm election, according to CIRCLE (13% to 33%). Virginia voters are inconsistent when it comes to midterm elections in general. Since 2000, anywhere from almost 32% to almost 60% of voters participated, according to the Virginia Department of Elections website.
The 18-29 voter turnout was 56% in Virginia in 2020, according to CIRCLE, up from 48% in 2016. Voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election was the highest turnout of the 21st century overall.
The 18-29 voter turnout decreased in the 2021 gubernatorial election, according to CIRCLE, from 34% in 2017 to 27%.
Social media is a great way to engage young voters, according to Reynoso. The We Vote VA Instagram account launched in late 2019. The account now has nearly 16,000 followers and is one of the organization’s primary methods of reaching voters. It features easy to read and visually appealing posts containing information about polling locations, important dates, redistricting background and more. The concept is to inform and help create a habit of voting.
“It is so important that young voters know their facts,” Ellie Sorensen, press secretary for the Republican Party of Virginia, stated in an email.
Young voters may think their vote doesn’t matter because some policy issues might not directly impact them, according to Sorensen.
“Sometimes, voters just vote based on what other people around them vote, but if they are taught the importance of voting and the facts about what they are actually voting for, it will encourage younger people to vote,” Sorensen stated.
Voting can become a habit, especially when voters can see the “good it can do,” according to Gianni Snidle, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia.
“If we’re not actively participating in our democracy, then we’re failing,” Snidle said.
Nonprofit organization Rock the Vote has worked to make voting a habit among young voters since 1990. It launched with a public service announcement featuring singer, songwriter and actress Madonna.
Rock the Vote serves as a one-stop shop for all things voting, Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director, stated in an email. Voters can check registration status, request an absentee ballot, get election reminders and view election deadlines through the website.
The organization had direct channels to young voters through its partnership with MTV, and through concert venues where it would register people to vote.
Rock the Vote has adapted through the decades and was the first to launch an online voter registration platform in the late 1990s, according to an L.A. Times report. The organization reports that it has helped register 14 million people to vote.
The new generation of voters are extraordinarily in touch with their values, according to DeWitt.
“But over the past few years, they’ve witnessed our political culture become increasingly volatile and our democracy threatened on multiple counts,” DeWitt stated.
Young people know their value and they keep showing up despite the obstacles put before them, according to DeWitt.
State lawmakers have made voting more accessible in recent years. Virginia voters are no longer required to show photo identification at the polls. Voters can prove their identity with things such as a driver’s license, passport, college student ID and even a current bank statement or utility bill that contains the voter’s name and address. Same-day voter registration can be done up to and on Election Day, although voters receive a provisional ballot.
Voters can find local polling places and request an absentee ballot on the Virginia Department of Elections website.
Early voting started Sept. 23 and will end on Nov. 5. Absentee ballots must be requested by Oct. 28 and postmarked by Election Day on Nov. 8.
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