18 in ’18: How First-Time Voters Could Affect the Midterms

6 minute read

When Chyanne Duhart arrived for her freshman year at East Stroudsburg University in central Pennsylvania in September, she was overwhelmed with options: she considered singing a capella, joining the Latin Association Club, or signing up for the Black Student Union.

Instead, she got a fellowship with NextGen, an organization funded by Democratic superdonor Tom Steyer to register and mobilize young people to vote.

Duhart had been old enough follow the 2016 election, but too young to cast a ballot in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state. When Trump won her state and then the election, “I cried myself to sleep that night,” she says.

This November, she’ll be old enough to vote, like more than 8 million young Americans who weren’t eligible in the 2016 election.

To many of them, the 2016 election was yet another example an older, less diverse generation of voters making decisions that they disagree with on everything from the environment to the Supreme Court.

Trump won solid majorities of voters over 45, but people under 29 voted against him by almost 20 points. The Republican-led Congress has a median age that’s gone up almost 10 years since 1981. Back then, the average age in Congress was 49 in the House, and 51 in the Senate; today, the average member of the House is 58 and the average Senator is 61.

“I think they probably don’t really care what’s happening because they’re probably not going to be here that long,” says Duhart. “We care more because we’re young, we intend to be on Earth for a long time.”

Activists and artists are doing everything they can to mobilize the nation’s newest voters to the polls. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky recently partnered with the Sierra Club to make a new ad featuring 18-year old activists talking about why they’re voting for the first time this year. “Black-ish” star Yara Shahidi, 18, started Eighteenx18, a campaign to bring together young influencers to spread voter engagement across their social platforms.

“These guys couldn’t do anything in 2016 and now they’re inheriting this world,” says Aronofsky. “They’re just trying to figure out a way to clean it up.”

Even Taylor Swift, who for years has been conspicuously silent about her political views, broke her silence in early October and urged her 112 million Instagram followers to register to vote in the midterms, adding that she would be voting for Democrats. Roughly 65,000 people registered to vote in the 24 hours after her post, according to Vote.org, which is more than registered in the entire month of August.

“I feel as though my generation has in many ways created this way of thinking in which our life is about benefiting people who may not even look exactly like us,” says Shahidi. “I felt like the humanity was taken out of the conversation about policy. We were proceeding on policies as though they didn’t affect lives.”

Tom Steyer has poured $33 million into recruiting and training NextGen fellows like Duhart to mobilize young voters ahead of the midterm elections. Instead of singing a capella, Duhart makes a stipend of $250 a week to register her fellow students to vote. Her job is to marshall volunteers to canvass the campus: she and her team have registered 967 new voters since the semester began, roughly 1 in 6 of the undergraduate students on campus.

“Look, if the largest age cohort in the United States of America does not believe that democracy matters or works, we have a serious problem,” says NextGen founder Tom Steyer. “That’s a statement that we no longer live in a functioning representative democracy.”

NextGen is one of dozens of new groups that have mobilized since Trump’s election to reach out to younger voters. In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school partnered with other young gun safety activists around the country for the Road to Change tour, designed to advocate for more gun safety legislation and register young voters. Teenage climate activists formed the Sunrise movement to encourage young voters to reject politicians who take donations from fossil fuel companies.

Because young voters are so unpredictable, attempts to mobilize them are often met with skepticism. Roughly 50% of 18-29 year olds voted in the 2016 election (more than the number who voted in the 2012 election, when Obama was on the ticket) but in the 2014 midterms, less than 20% of young people cast a ballot.

But this year, early indicators show that young people are unusually engaged in a midterm election. New data from TargetSmart shows that youth turnout in the primaries jumped roughly 4% from the 2014 primaries, but youth voter registration is up nearly 8 points in Arizona, Florida and Michigan. The survey also found that young voters account for more than 60% of new registrants in Pennsylvania.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, roughly 34% of Americans between 18 and 24 say they’re “extremely likely” to vote, but that number increases exponentially as they’re contacted by organizations and campaigns. Among 18-24 year olds who have been contacted multiple times about voting, more than 80% say they’re either “extremely” or “very” likely to vote.

Voters in this age group tend to favor Democrats, and largely disapprove of President Trump’s policies, which means that Steyer’s NextGen strategy could pay off big time. Thousands of NextGen fellows have been organizing on college campuses for more than a year, and the organization says it has more than 6,000 volunteers registering 230,000 young voters across the country, including more than 50,000 in Florida alone. Youth voters propelled 39-year old Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum (a Steyer favorite) to a surprise victory in the Democratic primary.

“The amount of young people outweighs the number of older people,” says Duhart, referring to the fact that millennials are projected to surpass Baby Boomers as the largest voting-eligible generation sometime in the next year or so, according to Pew. Duhart isn’t a millennial—at 18, she’s a post-millennial — but the point stands.

“If we had voted in the 2016 election, I feel like the results would have been so different,” she says.

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com