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Trump, social media drive surge in Pennsylvania's young voter ranks
With the November election approaching, reaching the youth vote is more important than ever now that there are more young voters than older voters in Pennsylvania.
For the first time in the state's history, voters between the ages of 18 and 34 outnumber voters 65 and older, according to July statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Statewide, registered voters under 34 outnumber those 65 and older by 4.4 percent— 2,127,575 to 2,035,354.
Young voters in York County haven't quite surpassed older voters, but the gap between the two age groups continues to shrink.
As of this July, county voters 65 and older outnumbered those 34 and younger by only 1 percent — 69,349 to 68,682.
Pennsylvania Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren declined to comment on the statistics, citing concern that "partisan discussions" would follow and that the State Department is nonpartisan.
She was right.
The reason for the uptick: Party leaders on both sides are citing President Donald Trump for the influx of young voters — but for different reasons.
"It definitely has to do with Trump," said Shane Coolbaugh, president of the York County Young Democrats. "A lot of us are tired of the chaos. Everyone feels like they have to step up to the plate because our elders are not doing it."
However, the progressive approach to addressing the Trump administration needs to change, he added.
"We groan about Trump, but what are we for?" Coolbaugh said. "Democrats often fail to have their own message; they're just anti-Trump. We need to get more diverse people involved and start stating what exactly we stand for."
Coolbaugh's conservative counterpart agreed that Trump fueled young voters' interest — not because of the president's poor qualities but because of his engaging personality.
"Trump speaks to younger voters' level and engages folks, kind of like Bernie Sanders did," said CJ Weigle, president of the York County Young Republicans. "He energizes voters and gets them excited, which definitely has gotten younger voters interested."
However, both organizations agree social media is fueling the growing ranks of young voters.
"Social media makes a huge difference, especially with organizing," Coolbaugh said. "When you use social media for purposes other than mindless scrolling, you can really educate yourself. It can help the youth become more involved and educated in politics."
Weigle said social media provides a "bigger platform" for spreading messages, ideas and news.
Local activism also has played a role, said Jarrett Smith, the state director for NextGen America, a youth voter organization.
The surge of youth voters has been most noticeable since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, he said.
Upon seeing the young survivors of the massacre make waves across media after voicing disgust with U.S. gun laws, "those who watched it thought, 'I can do the same thing,'" he said.
Interests of the youth: Policies and events that directly affect the youth, such as gun control and recent school shootings, are bound to be reflected in young people's votes, Smith added.
In York specifically, human rights-related policies such as immigration, health care and college tuition are cited often by young, liberal voters, he said.
With York City's heavy Latino population — 30.9 percent of the population as of 2016, according to census statistics — immigration has especially been a large driver in liberal thinking, he added.
Coolbaugh added that the legalization of recreational marijuana and the economy are also popular talking points.
On the right side of the political spectrum, the political areas driving youth interest are less broad.
Young Republican voters mostly focus on economics, Weigle said.
"We see people in our generation harp on the fact they can't pay off their college debt or afford homes, so we want to elect candidates who will put us in a good situation economically," he added.
Are the youth mostly liberal?: The youth today are "overwhelmingly progressive," said Smith, who has helped register more than 65,000 youth voters statewide since NextGen America's Pennsylvania branch started in 2016.
"Young voters are overwhelmingly progressive, and we see that in the people they are voting for," he said. "They've become more involved and aware, especially with human rights being threatened under the Trump administration."
He's right — at the state level.
Between the ages of 18 and 34, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 47.6 percent in Pennsylvania — 1,041,170 to 640,866.
Therefore, voters 18 to 34 accounted for roughly 26 percent of all Democratic votes in the state. Republicans in the same age bracket accounted for roughly 20 percent of the total Republican votes.
Weigle countered that he doesn't agree liberals are more prominent in this generation. Instead, Republicans just "don't get out to vote as a youth."
"I don't think that's something Republicans do well," he said. "Regardless, if anything, I'd say that we're gaining support. We're in an upswing."
In York County, Republicans have the upper hand by numbers, but by sheer percentage representation of each party's total votes across all age demographics, the Democratic youth remain on top.
County Republicans from ages 18 to 34 outnumber county Democrats by 18.3 percent —28,715 to 23,905
However, Democrats between 18 and 34 constituted 23.2 percent of the total 102,867 Democratic voters, while Republicans between 18 and 34 only constituted 19.6 percent of the total 149,935 Republican voters.
Participation is still participation: Despite political differences, youth participation is a vital aspect of the political process today, said Jill Greene, executive director of the Pennsylvania League of Women voters, a nonprofit organization heavily involved in voter registration and education.
"We are encouraged by the enthusiasm and energy of this country’s youngest voters," she said. "We are hopeful that their energy and passion will have a broad effect on voter turnout overall."
The nonprofit organization has "prioritized voter registration for nearly 100 years," she added.
"Like many Americans, young people are frustrated by what they see as an unresponsive and at times dysfunctional government," Greene said. "Thankfully, they are discovering their power to make a significant difference as active and engaged citizens."
Greene added that "every major social and political shift in modern memory has been led by young people" and that they "bring fresh ideas and renewed energy to the U.S. political process."
Democrats and Republicans agree.
"I think it's extremely important when you want to get young people involved because what you're starting to see is the interest that we're starting to take," Weigle said. "We've heard the call and we're here to participate — both Republicans and Democrats."
Coolbaugh agreed with the nonpartisan importance of the youth vote.
"We have the biggest voice now; we're coming of age," Coolbaugh said. "It's time for us to step up and vote, and I'm happy to see we're starting to do that."