Young Americans can swing the election... if they vote

©Agence France-Presse

Early voting -- seen here in North Charleston, South Carolina, on October 16, 2020 -- is up among young Americans

New York (AFP) - Most under 30s don't vote in the United States. This year however, in a contest between two septuagenarians, experts predict a record number of younger Americans will cast ballots -- a development that could tip the result.

With universities closed and millions at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, innovative virtual campaigns are using social media influencers, TikTok dances, video games and Zoom talks, as well as text messages and calls, to mobilize young voters.

Singers Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Billie Eilish and Cardi B are also encouraging them to have their say.

Eighteen to 29-year-olds represent around 20 percent of the US electorate. But just half of those eligible in that age group cast ballots when Donald Trump was elected in 2016.

"We have the most impactful vote in the US, but a lot of us don't know that," said Caitlin Upkong, a 19-year-old student from Michigan who is part of the New Voters Project, a non-partisan group present on more than 100 campuses.

"I've met people who think their voices didn't matter," added the first-time voter.

Some 63 percent of Americans aged 18-29 say they will vote in the November 3 election, up from 47 percent four years ago, according to a recent poll by Harvard University.

That surge is expected to help tip the balance in favor of 74-year-old Trump's Democratic challenger Joe Biden in bellwether states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona.

Sixty percent of young people surveyed in the same Harvard poll said they would vote for Biden, 77.  

Since most young people identify with progressive causes such as gun control and fighting climate change, Democrats generally spend more effort getting their vote than Republicans.

'So much power'

NextGen America is a progressive group working to mobilize voters in 11 battleground states. Founded by billionaire and former candidate for the Democratic nomination Tom Steyer, it aims to reach 4.5 million people.

In Pennsylvania, which Trump won by 44,000 votes in 2016, NextGen America's state director Larissa Sweitzer said her team has spoken to 50,000 young voters who have pledged to cast their ballots, including 22,000 who have registered since the last election.

"We have so much power going into this election. Young people are already voting at higher rates that we've seen before," the 27-year-old told AFP, referring to early voting statistics.

The group has recruited 3,000 online influencers with millions of followers in battleground states. It has also organized a virtual rally on the viral video game Animal Crossing, virtual drag shows centered on LGBTQ politics and online forums on various topics.

"The Biden campaign has had to get very creative. It's a challenge," said Tom Bonier, CEO of polling group TargetSmart.

The creativity was highlighted this week when 31-year-old Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opened an account on Twitch, a platform that broadcasts video games live, and invited young people to play with her.

Johanna Mudry of the Campus Election Engagement Project, another group mobilizing student voters, says the virtual campaigns are gaining traction with a generation rarely off their cell phones.

She is mentoring 36 activists, including Rania Zakaria, a 20-year-old finance student at the University of Pennsylvania who is one of 15 million Americans to have turned 18 since the last election.

Lonely campuses

Zakaria, part of the Penn Leads the Vote initiative, a non-partisan program encouraging voter engagement, says building a network of student voters hasn't been easy due to campus quarantines.

She says lots of students are suffering from "Zoom fatigue." 

"People are tired of just getting on a call, you know, with 20 plus different people and just like sitting there staring at the screen all day.

"(But) there's so many people that are supportive of our cause. And I think that's what keeps me going," she told AFP.

However, the isolation and loneliness that many students are feeling due to no in-person classes and a lack of campus parties may actually help fuel turnout. 

"Because students are so isolated right now we find they are really receptive to someone reaching out to them and caring whether or not they are voting this year," said Sarah Eagan, a 23-year-old activist with NextGen Pennsylvania.

Emma Rowland, a 20-year-old director with March For Our Lives, a student-led movement supporting gun legislation, has been working to boost turnout in the battleground state of Arizona. 

She says Trump's handling of the pandemic as an election issue itself is added incentive for new voters.

"Young people are now realizing 'maybe I should go vote because also it can improve my quality of life and make sure I am not stuck inside for another seven months,'" she told AFP.