TikTok, Texts, QR Codes Wielded in the Battle to Register Young Pa. Voters

Pennsylvania political groups are using social media and other tech-friendly methods to speak to young people about the issues they care about in order to get them to the polls come Nov. 3

The latest political operative trying to reach voters isn’t wearing a suit and tie. Instead, he’s rocking a t-shirt, shorts and free-flowing hair as he busts a barefooted jig to a song about how to vote by mail on social media app TikTok.

It’s unorthodox, yes, but it’s just one of the latest ways progressive groups are trying to turn out young voters. In battleground Pennsylvania, where in 2016 President Donald Trump eked out a razor-thin win on his way to the White House, every vote is massive, and groups are hoping young voters can make the difference with a big showing in the state.

They’re using social media and other tech-friendly methods to speak to young people about the issues they care about in order to get them to the polls come Nov. 3.

“At this point we’re reaching more people than a lot of cable news networks,” said Sarah Eagan, the press secretary for NextGen Pennsylvania, the state arm of the national progressive group NextGen America.

That reach will be important in an election year where young people are more engaged than they have been in a long time.

A June survey by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University found that, among voters aged 18-29, 83% believe young people have the power to change the country, and 60% feel like they’re part of a movement that will vote to express its views. 

Similarly, the survey found that 27% of people between 18 and 24 years old have attended a march or demonstration, compared to 5% in 2016 -- when Trump won the presidency --  and 16% in 2018, when a Democratic “blue wave” saw various progressive candidates elected to Congress across the country.

As Eagan sees it, in the past young people have failed to turn out in large numbers not because they don’t care about the issues but because political campaigns have not quite figured out how to reach them where they are and speak to young voters’ concerns.

“Before RGB’s passing, we found that young people are especially motivated by coronavirus, they are motivated by affordable health care, affordable college -- particularly in Pennsylvania because we have some of the highest student debt here. We are also motivated by climate change,” Eagan said, referencing the death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose seat Trump is seeking to fill with conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett.

“So now that all of those issues are on the line -- so now that our rights, freedoms, health care during a pandemic -- are all on the line with the Supreme Court, we find that that’s extremely motivating for the people that we’re talking to,” Eagan said.

Millennials and Gen Zers are getting attention from political organizations like never before ahead of the Nov. 3 election. NBC10 reporter Brandon Hudson talked with young voters about the stakes in the presidential election.

In this election cycle, in which the coronavirus pandemic has already upended traditional campaigning by forcing many people to largely stay home, groups like hers may have an upper hand as voters seek information about their concerns through more nontraditional methods.

In one day alone, NextGen America reached 21.9 million people through its social media influencer program, Eagan said. The program uses influential people on social media -- whether they be celebrities or just people who have a large following for talking about how to care for curly hair -- to share links on their platforms regarding how to register to vote by mail. That's a priority of the group as it seeks to provide a safe pandemic voting option.

Usually, Eagan said, NextGen America would be at college campuses registering students. Though that has changed this year because of the pandemic, her group is not short on volunteers. 

In Pennsylvania, NextGen has about 2,000 registered volunteers operating and communicating in virtual workspaces like Slack and doing work like sending mass text messages to the tune of 40,000 people at a time, she said. That has thus far yielded about 15,000 new registered voters, she noted.

That’s only a chunk of the roughly 37% of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996) that the Pew Research Center found will be eligible to vote in November. 

One of the big stumbling blocks for young people, Eagan said, is navigating their way through a cumbersome voter registration process that has yielded lawsuits across various states.

Jeanette Bavwidinsi, the director for Philadelphia’s Office of Youth Engagement, echoed that sentiment.

“A lot of the feedback that I’ve heard from GenZ and millennials is that it needs to be made easier and simpler so that if people do think ‘Oh, I don’t have time,’ or ‘How long is this going to take?’ that’s something that can be eliminated,” Bavwidinsi said.

To that end, the Office of Youth Engagement, through efforts like its “First Vote 2020” initiative, has tried to provide quick, easy, accessible information through things like QR codes worn on the shirts of workers and volunteers.

With a quick picture from a smartphone, voters can be redirected to the Pennsylvania voter registration website or the application for mail-in ballots without even having to stop and talk to a volunteer with a clipboard and pen, like the old days.

“There’s no excuses. We live in a digital world, we live in a social media, social environment, and the sharing of information should be super easy,” Bavwidinsi said.

In a city like Philadelphia, where there has been a notable and alarming spike in homicides and where children have increasingly been caught in the crossfire, young people are especially motivated by issues like gun violence, as well as racial justice and police reform, Bavwidinsi said.

Those issues, personal and local, are key to making sure the city’s eligible young voters hit the polls Nov. 3, she said.

“You’re voting for somebody who’s going to represent the United States on the world stage, but this is a person you probably will never see. So what really are you voting for?,” Bavwidinsi asked. “You’re voting for your life, the life of your community, the life of your family.”

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