Young voters are running in the 2020 election. Can they hold on?

The 2020 general elections marked a notable increase in the participation of young voters. It is estimated that half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the previous presidential election.

Usually, young Americans vote well below their proportion of the population. In Indiana, 42% of young voters participated in the 2020 election, up from 35% in 2016.

The increase in turnout has caught the attention of political scientists and politicians. Now groups of students are working to maintain this momentum.

At Indiana University in Bloomington, Republican and Democratic college clubs brought in candidates to pitch to potential voters ahead of the primaries. Although their political messages may differ, their intention is the same: they want students to continue to make their voices heard.

“We really want students to be excited to vote and make it a priority,” said sophomore Sophie Suter, president of Indiana University College Democrats. “Right now we’re really pushing early voting.”

Two-thirds of eligible students at IU Bloomington participated in the 2020 elections. Of students on the voter rolls, nearly 80% voted.

Mark Fraley works with groups, including Republicans and Campus Democrats, to increase voter turnout through IU’s Political and Civic Engagement (PACE) program. He said the COVID pandemic has forced campus groups around the world to rethink voter engagement.

“We didn’t have the capacity to attend welcome week events, attend in-person events, and register people to vote,” Fraley said. “We had to use the tools that the digital environment had given us.”

Elizabeth Bennion, a professor at IU South Bend, studies young voters and what brings them to the polls. She said the digital peer-to-peer outreach that increased during the pandemic election has proven effective in increasing turnout. In many cases, bland voter registration emails have been replaced by more direct digital contact.

“Just Facebook ads and banners, they really don’t seem to work,” Bennion said. “But when you add the posts that show which of your friends have voted and that your friends are [voting], it starts to become more efficient. And even more effective than that, online mobilization among friends and peers.

States’ expansion of absenteeism or mail-in voting policies has made it easier for many young voters to vote, though Indiana has denied a push to expand mail-in voting.

PACE, Democrats and Republicans turned to virtual forums or registration campaigns. Members encouraged their friends directly or used social media to get them to vote.

“Voting was an act of social solidarity in a time of physical distancing,” Fraley said.

But Bennion says the names on the ballot probably had the biggest impact on turnout. People were very attached to former President Trump – whether they loved him or hated him.

If you ask students, he was at the top of their minds in 2020.

“It was not a normal election where it was all about political issues. It was just about maintaining democracy in general,” said Suter, the chairman of the IU Democrats.

(Mitch Legan, WTIU/WFIU News)

IU Republicans are now focused on the current President, Joe Biden. Makenzie Binford, the campus GOP chairman, hopes rising inflation and a backlash against COVID policies can help them flip some city or county offices red.

“[The goal is] just be present,” Binford said. “Just let the townspeople, locals and teachers know, ‘Hey, we’re here.'”

College Democrats are looking statewide and nationally. House District 62 and the 9th Congressional District are open seats, and Suter is cautiously optimistic.

“The Democrats [get] a little more chance of getting in there when they’re not facing a starter, so there’s a lot of people working on that,” she said.

The groups have dropped off on campus to register voters, and they say they will continue after the primaries next month. They combine those digital strategies they’ve learned with the ability to return to in-person events.

Voter turnout is typically lower mid-term, so Bennion says we probably won’t be able to draw any major conclusions. But she will look to see if younger voters continue the trend.

“It’s a habit that is formed. And so if we can develop a civic identity where people see themselves as voters, even if the elections are not very competitive, they will still go to the polls,” Bennion said. “Because it’s part of their sense of identity – that they are voters.”

Monroe County will have 28 polling places for the May 3 primaries, including one at the IU Memorial Union. The county’s new election center at 302 S. Walnut St. in Bloomington is open for early voting.

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