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August 20, 2019

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Organizers in Las Vegas hope success mobilizing young voters will carry over to Election Day


Steve Marcus

Shuttles to an early voting site are made available to voters during a rally for Jacky Rosen, Democratic candidate for Nevada Senate, at the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas Friday, Nov. 2, 2018.

When Kate Frauenfelder calls the 2016 presidential election a political awakening for young voters, it’s not a matter of opinion. Early voting results in Nevada are bearing her out.

Consider these numbers:

Five times more voters ages 18-29 cast early ballots this year in Nevada compared to the 2014 midterms.

On the UNLV campus, early voting nearly matched the level from 2016 — a presidential election year. This year, 4,257 people voted during the three days of early voting on campus, compared to 4,626 during the same period in 2016.

“I think a lot of younger voters have realized this year that they have strength in numbers and that if they actually just show up like older people do, they can pretty much get whatever they want,” Frauenfelder said.

If that enthusiasm carries through Election Day and beyond, then, 2018 could be a transformational year in American politics. Generation Z, which at 32 percent of the population is the largest age group in the U.S., is poised to become the nation’s most influential bloc of voters.

Frauenfelder, 22, has been helping energize that group as a Nevada staff member for NextGen America, billionaire Tom Steyer’s political action organization aimed at boosting voting among younger voters.

Since the start of the year, NextGen staff members and volunteers have been working on campuses to encourage students in Nevada to vote. In addition, the organization has reached more than 300,000 voters through digital advertisements, while also using email and direct mail to get its message to its targeted audience. NextGen also has made contact with more than 73,000 students in Nevada in the most traditional of ways — knocking on their doors.

“We’re meeting young people where they are,” said Mark Riffenburg, organizing director for NextGen. “We’re on the social platforms they’re on, we’re on their college campuses, in their text inbox. NextGen’s everywhere with young people, and I think that’s a big part of what we’re seeing here.”

Meanwhile, Donald Trump also has played a significant role in the mobilization of younger voters — though not in the way that Republicans would hope.

In an ongoing survey conducted by NextGen, young voters identified racial equality and injustice as one of the top three issues driving them to the polls.

“Young people are tuned in,” Riffenburg said. “They’re watching the news, they’re checking their Twitter feed and they’re seeing a lot of the hate, bigotry and fear-mongering that’s been going on about all the different issues related to race.

“That’s not to say it hasn’t always been an issue, but now more than ever Trump has emboldened folks to be a little more out with racism. So it’s showing its face in a more public way, and young people at this point are saying: ‘No more — this is not going to be a state that’s divided by racism.’”

Other top issues are college affordability and gun violence. And while health care may seem like an issue that would be of more concern to older voters than vibrant young college students, it was the No. 2 item on the survey results.

Riffenburg said that came as no surprise to him. He said young voters were paying attention to the Obamacare repeal votes, which affected their ability to stay on their parents’ health care plans and the ability of those with pre-existing conditions to obtain affordable insurance.

“More broadly speaking, I think there’s also an understanding that this is an issue regardless of whether you personally need health care coverage right at this moment,” he said. “People have family members who might have illnesses or conditions that need to be treated.”

On Friday at UNLV, the organization’s efforts were on full display as Steyer made a campus visit to hand out pizza to students on the sidewalk and rev up volunteers.

Steyer, who has led a multimillion-dollar effort to impeach Trump, said backlash to the president and GOP leadership was a key factor in drawing out younger voters.

“If you were to look at where the two parties stand on the issues that young people care about, they’re in two completely different places,” he said. “Whether it is cost of college, health care, racial justice, climate/energy, they couldn’t be more different. I think young people realize we’re at a fork in the road and that their participation is critical.”

As first-time voter Sarah Michelle Uganiza waited in line to vote at Lied Library, she said she was compelled mostly by her support of Ballot Question No. 4, which would eliminate Nevada’s tax on feminine hygiene products. However, she said, Trump also played a role.

“I don’t like Trump,” said Uganiza, a 19-year-old UNLV sophomore, “and I want to elect people who will counter him.”