High school senior Gillian Pete remembers feeling powerless after the 2016 election, when she was far too young to vote. She searched for other ways to participate in the political process, becoming active in her community.
“I started doing a lot more things that I could do, which was attending protests, school board meetings, being more civically engaged,” Pete said. “But this time around I have a direct voice in the election and I plan on using it.”
Now 18, the Minneapolis teenager registered to vote over the summer, joining a growing number of young people in Minnesota flocking to take part in the 2020 election between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Youth voter registration in Minnesota is on the rise compared with previous election cycles, even as young people face more challenges to casting their ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Minnesota is one of 20 states where voter registration of youth between 18 and 24 is already 12% higher this election season compared with 2016, according to a nonpartisan poll from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE).
Even more young Minnesotans have signed up to vote since midsummer 2018, a midterm election with the highest youth voter turnout in any midterm election since the 1980s.
“This reinforces other data from 2020 that young leaders want to see change and will put time and energy into making that happen,” said Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE director of impact. This bloc of voters is concerned with how the results of the election and the continued COVID-19 pandemic will affect their daily lives, she said.
Another CIRCLE poll found that 79% of young people said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize the impact of politics on their lives.
In previous election cycles, expectations of youth voter turnout have often fallen short. Young people face obstacles to voting that include navigating the mail-in voting process and busy student schedules. The pandemic has further complicated voting for students who are studying from home this semester.
With these concerns, the level of participation among young Minnesotans is a bit surprising, said LeadMN Executive Director Mike Dean, who oversees civic engagement at Minnesota community colleges.
“COVID-19 has created some huge challenges for young people to go out and vote and have their voice heard,” Dean said. “Yet, I think because of what’s going on right now, we’re seeing young people much more engaged civically and politically,” Dean said.
But in some ways, the pandemic also could be helping drive youth voter registration in Minnesota. “When I look at that data, I say that’s really positive. It’s clear that young people are engaged,” Dean said.
Organizations across the country are exploring new avenues to connect with potential voters, said Alex Leichenger, a spokesman for progressive advocacy group NextGen America.
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“We’ve done phone banks, we’ve done text banks. We’re active in different campus Facebook groups, and even on dating apps, trying to encourage people to register to vote. Basically wherever young people are online or digitally, that’s where we’re going to try to meet them,” Leichenger said.
The organization’s biggest task this summer has been making sure that young people understand how to vote by mail, said Leichenger.
“In our outreach we’re putting a lot of emphasis on vote-by-mail and directing people to links where they can check on not only their registration status, but make sure they’re ready and equipped to request a mail-in ballot and vote by mail in the election,” Leichenger said.
The Minnesota Secretary of State will begin sending mail-in ballots to Minnesota voters young and old on Friday, the first day of early voting.
As for registering to vote first, Pete said it shouldn’t be hard.
“I found the registration process to be really easy,” she said, noting it took about 10 minutes to register online. “I think it’s a painless process, but it’s important.”