By: Ben Giles September 21, 2015 , 7:35 am
The votes are in, and kids these days love Phoenix Mercury player Brittney Griner.
They also love bobbleheads.
At least more than T-shirts and backpacks.
All this vital information comes courtesy of the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, which with the help of the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, tallied the votes of roughly 4,000 children attending a Phoenix Mercury game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Sept. 2.
The votes of the kids, ages 11, 12, and 13, were cast on realistic ballots – complete with fill-in-the-arrow accuracy – and tabulated at the stadium on real vote-counting machines normally used for more high stakes votes.
The event was a part of a new effort by Secretary of State Michele Reagan to get kids excited about voting. At least for a day, it worked.
Reagan is counting on that excitement carrying forward six years or so, when those same kids are old enough to cast ballots in municipal, state and federal elections for the first time. Hopefully, Reagan said, they won’t continue the trend of the preceding millennial generation.
The millennial vote is abysmally low by any measure.
In 2012, 18- to 25-year-olds represented just 6.9 percent of the 2.3 million ballots cast in the general election, according to data provided by the secretary of state.
In 2014, a non-presidential election year, that representation dipped to 3.9 percent of 1.5 million votes.
The trend is not exclusive to Arizona. Roughly one in five 18- to 29-year-olds voted in 2014, the lowest turnout for that age group in 40 years, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The center is a research arm of Tufts University in Massachusetts. The same analysis found that only 46.7 percent of that age group is even registered to vote – which also marks a four-decade low.
Even among those registered to vote, less than half turned out to cast ballots: 12.4 million 18- to 29-year-olds, or 57.4 percent of registered voters in that age group, stayed home.
Those statistics are puzzling to Reagan, who recalled her decision to vote in the first election she could “natural.”
“What we’re finding now, we go talk to kids at the 18-year-old range and try to get them interested in being a voter, and they look at us and they say, ‘My vote doesn’t count. My voice doesn’t count. Nobody cares what I have to say,’” Reagan told the Arizona Capitol Times. “There’s a very big disconnect between them and their community.”
Whatever the reason for that may be, Reagan and her staff have found it difficult to connect with voters 18 and older who seem to have already made up their mind not to participate in the election process, or in some cases, who’ve never even been approached or talked to about voting.
Reagan hopes to change that for future generations by extending her outreach to kids. Make an impression early, and it could last with them until they’re old enough, she said.
“We don’t have a specific age group in mind, but the philosophy is that while we still want to and are reaching out to 18- to 35-year-olds, if we’re talking to 18-year-olds about voting and it’s the first time they’re being spoken to about voting when they’re 18, then we’re speaking to them too late,” Reagan said.
In addition to the usual rounds of voter outreach on college campuses, Reagan has been holding mock elections at schools for kids of all ages.
In August, she announced the hiring of two voting rights ambassadors, whose role includes visits with children “to stress the importance and value of exercising their most basic of civil rights,” according to a press release announcing the hires.
Reagan said the staff at the secretary’s office is “rededicating ourselves to encouraging the next generation of voters to participate in the process.”
It’s a sound strategy, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of Tufts University research center.
“What the secretary of state of Arizona is doing is really a significant step, especially because she’s trying to do that as a statewide initiative,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “There’s been no examples that I know of where the secretary of state has taken a lead on that.” Mock elections and debates, which can be about something as trivial as a child’s favorite basketball player or favorite ice cream, provide “a really great start for having that multiple perspective conversation about any given issue,” she said.
The key will be transitioning to a more substantive conversation and debate. Votes on ice cream are fine for a younger audience, but as the children transition into high school, it’d be beneficial to start talking about currents events, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “I’d love to see when they start thinking about what are the real issues that are affecting our country,” she said.
REACHING OUT TO COLLEGES
As for the generation just recently old enough to vote, Reagan insists that while her philosophy on voter outreach has changed, she’s not abandoning millennials.
Spokesman Matt Roberts, who served in the same role under former Secretary of State Ken Bennett, said outreach to colleges and universities has not diminished under Reagan.
“We’re not giving up on them,” Reagan told the Capitol Times. “Let me be very clear. Because we can’t. We really want to see them become more engaged.”
Kawashima-Ginsberg said millennials weren’t always a lost cause.
“You could say they were patient until 2008 and 2010,” she said. “They voted at a pretty high rate then. It’s just the last few years that they have sort of stopped coming to the table in some ways.” The current generation of young voters is disappointed with their government for a variety of reasons. After voting in 2008 and 2010 with little to show for it, they began to sour on voting. Millennials went to college, got a good education, and expected to find work and start families, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. Instead, they were rewarded with a sour job market and poor income levels, she said. Rather than vote, millennials have turned their attention to other types of activism, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. For example, they’re more likely to volunteer than their Baby Boomer parents.
“They want to have a voice and impact, and they’re not seeing voting in a national election as a way to do that,” she said.
There’s still time for millennials to change their minds about voting. Voting propensity naturally increases with age, Kawashima-Ginsberg noted, so as millennials get older, turnout is likely to improve.
One barrier to the polls remains voter registration, and expanding access. For example, allowing same-day voter registration can have a “unique effect” on young people’s voting patterns, she said.
Reagan remains opposed to same-day voter registration in Arizona, however.
Arizona is largely a mail-in ballot voting state, and that requires a cut off of voter registration at least two days before voting begins, Roberts said. The process gives the United States Postal Service and county elections officials time to administer ballots properly, he said. Instead, Reagan will hold more events like the mock election at the Phoenix Mercury game, where students clamored for pens to fill in the arrow on ballots to vote for their favorite player and screamed when Reagan handed out lanyards in the arena stands. And there’s a chance, Reagan said, they’ll take home a tear-away sheet at the bottom of their ballots and talk to their older siblings and parents about voting that day.
On one side of the sheets is the Phoenix Mercury’s schedule. The other, a calendar of crucial dates for the 2016 election cycle.
“Those kids felt empowered that day, those kids felt special,” Reagan said. “And they were looking at those little tear-off cards like they were gold. And we’re doing our job if we’re educating people.”