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Young voters raise their voices in York County

Greg Gross
505-5433/@ggrossyd
  • About 1.2 million millennial voters of 8.5 million registered voters in Pa. cast ballots in 2012
  • In 2014, turnout for the age group dropped to 417,601, or 5 percent

With nearly 2 million registered voters in Pennsylvania, the millennial generation and younger voters could have a huge, possibly deciding, impact on the upcoming election.

Candidate supporters and voters are seen at a polling place at Aldersgate United Methodist Church. Bill Kalina photo

The two age brackets — ages 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 — made up of millennial and younger voters are the largest voting sect in the state and York County, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of State.

There are just under 2 million members of the millennial and younger generation who are registered to vote in the state. In York County, they account for 60,410 of the 273,628 registered voters as of the end of February, Department of State data shows.

Numerous millennials — namely high school and college students — said the economy is what is attracting them to the polls.

"The student debt issue is on everyone's mind," said Justin Walker, a York College senior who's backing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. "I think that alone is getting people involved."

Millennials are defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as anyone born between 1982 and 2000. With 83.1 million members, the generation represents a quarter of the nation's population and last year surpassed baby boomers as the largest living generation, according to the census bureau.

Turnout: The millennial generation hasn't exactly turned out to the polls in droves, and their turnout rate has been eclipsed by voters on the opposite end of the spectrum.

In the 2012 presidential election, 1.2 million millennial voters, or 14 percent of about 8.5 million registered voters in the state, cast ballots. They were narrowly beaten out by an older generation of voters for highest voter turnout for an age bracket.

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Voters aged 65 and over gained the top spot when 1.3 million of them voted in that election, casting 16 percent of the votes, according to the data.

Millennials fared much worse in the 2014 general election, during which Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was elected, with voter turnout at just 417,601, or 5 percent of about 8.3 million possible voters. Just over a million, or 13.5 percent, of the voters that year were aged 65 and over, according to the Department of State.

Overall voter turnout in the 2012 and 2014 elections were 68 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

Nationwide, 45 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2012 election while 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2014 election, according to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

The young vote tends to lean toward Democrats, with Democratic President Barack Obama receiving about 60 percent of the young vote in 2012, according to the center.

Efforts: But efforts, big and small, are being made to get millennials registered to vote and to get them out to the polls.

Jason Baker, a teacher at Spring Grove Area High School, drives home the point to students in his senior honors political science class every chance he gets.

"They make fun of me all the time," he said.

Since Pennsylvania has closed primaries, during which only registered Democrats or Republicans can vote, Baker encourages his students to register with one of the two parties. To help them figure out which party to join, he gives them a test to show where they fall on the political spectrum.

The efforts appear to be paying off. A well-informed group of his students recently discussed why they believe it's important to vote and what issues are important to them.

"If everyone who had that mentality that 'my vote doesn't count,' then it would be left up to a certain few people. So everyone, as a collective, can make a difference," said Chaize Harrell, a 17-year-old student who will be 18 before the Nov. 8 election.

Though Baker's students are looking forward to voting for the first time later this year, the same can't be said for all young voters. Some have likely been put off by the highly contentious political climate.

“This is kind of a mess, and I don't think some people want to get involved," said 18-year-old Sarah Zavatsky.

Nationwide: Nationally, nonpartisan groups like the youth-led national nonprofit National Youth Rights Association and Rock the Vote work to entice youth to register and get out and vote. The Democratic National Committee and the GOP have initiatives aimed at registering people to vote.

At York College, a core group of students involved in political groups work to get their fellow students engaged in politics. And that starts with registering to vote.

The Conservative Forum, formerly the college Young Republican Club, is holding a registration drive next week, just ahead of the March 28 deadline to register to vote before the April 26 primary, said Jacob Taylor, its president.

Pennsylvania's recent leap to online voter registration has made the drives a bit easier. Students running the drive will have laptops on hand for instant registration, he said.

The Student Senate is also working to hold a drive in the lead up to the deadline, said Jason Keller, its president. The group held drives during previous presidential elections.

Despite the efforts, not all students are politically active.

"With the content of the current political campaigns going on, it's a larger topic than in years past," Keller said.

Though the college lacks a Democratic club, at least one enterprising student has taken up its cause. Walker, the Sanders supporter, said he spreads his political views, mainly on social media, and works to get out the vote.

"I will talk to anyone about it," Walker said.

To register: The voting age in the United States is 18, but that doesn't mean you have be an adult to register to vote.

If someone who is 17 has a birthday on or before an election, he or she can still register, said Nikkie Suchanic, head of the York County voter registration and elections office.

There are numerous ways eligible Pennsylvanians can register to vote. The state-operated votespa.com website allows residents to not only register to vote but also to change their party affiliation, find their polling place and a host of other things.

There are other ways to register, as well.

One way is to do it in person by going to the York County Department of Elections and Voter Registration office, located at 28 E. Market St., or a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation photo center when obtaining or updating your driver's license.

Registration forms can also be taken to numerous state agencies.

The last day to register to vote before the primary is Monday, March 28.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.