Bounce houses, peer outreach help boost Wisconsin youth vote

By EMILY HAMER

Wisconsin Center for

Investigative Journalism

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Borna Riazi, 19, said his parents and teachers “never really” pushed him to vote. Riazi did not see voting as something that had a direct impact on his life. Plus, he described himself as “too lazy.”

“I wish you could just show up to a place and just vote,” Riazi said. “Like, no pre-registration, no nothing.”

But being a student on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus before the 2018 midterm election put voting directly in Riazi’s path.

“I wasn’t about to go out of my way, and then they were doing voter registration at the gym,” Riazi said. “I basically live there. . So I was like, ‘Well, I guess I better register.'”

Then about a week before the midterm elections, Riazi and two friends walked by a giant giraffe bounce house on the campus of 44,000 students.

Field organizers from NextGen Wisconsin, a political action group focused on turning out young progressive voters, encouraged them to enjoy the free bounce house and to vote early. The three jumped for about 20 minutes, then walked across the street to cast their ballots.

For Riazi, NextGen Wisconsin — and a friend who nagged him to vote — definitely played a role.

The stakes are high: By 2020, millennials and Generation Zers together are projected to make up 36 percent of the electorate — more than Baby Boomers at 28 percent, according to Pew Research. But young people have historically shown up less than any other age group, especially during midterms.

One reason is people tend to care more about politics after finishing their education, getting a job and starting a family, said Connie Flanagan, associate dean of the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology and an expert on youth and politics — milestones that millennials and Gen Zers are hitting at later ages than previous generations.

According to estimates provided by NextGen, the number of 18-35-year-olds who voted in Wisconsin in 2018 increased by about 80,000 — to just over 313,000 — compared to 2014.

Gov. Tony Evers won the election by 29,227 votes.

With young people ages 18-29 supporting Evers by a 60-37 margin over incumbent Gov. Scott Walker based on CNN exit polls, it is clear these voters helped push Evers to his narrow victory.

A NextGen America spokeswoman said her group was the largest in Wisconsin working to turn out young people, although experts caution that without more research, the increase cannot be definitively tied to one group or strategy.

“We believe we have the most staff, the most money invested, the most states, the highest number of total registered voters,” said Olivia Bercow, deputy communications director for NextGen America. “We’re the largest youth vote program in American history.”

When young people do vote, politicians take up the issues they care about, Flanagan said. Because of youth involvement in the 2016 presidential primary — particularly Vermont Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign — issues including student loan debt and a $15 minimum wage are “getting attention now.”

In 2018, NextGen America, funded by billionaire activist Tom Steyer, pumped $33 million into 11 states, including Wisconsin, specifically targeting young progressives.

The group’s get-out-the-vote effort in Wisconsin cost nearly $3 million. NextGen’s strategies included puppies, goats, rallies and celebrities. And it may have worked.

But whether such an effort is sustainable election after election and in settings outside college campuses remain open questions, experts told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Civic education in high school, automatic voter registration and pre-registration for teenagers may be other ways to boost participation, they said.

Young voter turnout in 2018 was the highest for a midterm election in 25 years, according to exit poll calculations by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which is based at Tufts University and focuses on young people.

Roughly 31 percent of 18-29-year-olds turned out nationally for the 2018 midterms, up from 21 percent in 2014, according to CIRCLE. Even so, the vast majority of young people nationwide did not vote.

The youth rate was higher in five states with competitive gubernatorial races. Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Ohio had a combined average youth turnout rate of 35 percent, CIRCLE found.

David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, said it is ‘impossible to say’ what drove increases. It could have been caused by opposition to President Donald Trump or states with competitive races.