A little over a year ago, I was on a plane travelling home from Atlanta, where I had just spent the last few days training student leaders for their voter registration drives ahead. I had no idea that would be the last time I would work in person with students as we shifted our entire program online. While this was a challenging year for many, I am proud of the role our students played in the collective effort to achieve historic youth voter turnout this past fall.
But even as we celebrate our accomplishments, we’re also gearing up for the work ahead–the work to engage young people in our democracy never stops! Read on to learn more about PIRG student-led efforts that increased turnout, as well as our plans for the next two years.
Historic Youth Voter Turnout in the Fall 2020 Election
Our friends at Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) just released youth voter turnout (ages 18-29) numbers for most states. Their data confirms what we knew from our own internal numbers. Across the board, youth voter turnout went way up. In states where we organized, we saw turnout rates increase from 5 to 22 percentage points over 2016. We saw the biggest gain in states like New Jersey (22%), Arizona (18%), California (17%), and Georgia (14%), where we invested in training student organizers to run voter registration and GOTV efforts in their own communities. Nationally, the youth voter turnout rate is expected to reach the highest level in nearly 50 years.
Of course, some of this year’s historic turnout can be attributed to expanded vote by mail options and increased interest in the election. But this rise is also the culmination of years of our program investing in training young activists on college campuses and running peer-to-peer voter engagement at the local level.
State story: New Jersey
According to CIRCLE data, New Jersey had the highest increase (22 percentage points) and largest overall turnout rate (67 percent) amongst young voters in 2020 in the country.
NJPIRG students organized Virtual Party at the Poll events on election day reaching thousands of their peers across the Garden State
New Jersey student leaders played a major role helping their campuses get vote ready by organizing massive virtual peer-to-peer registration and GOTV efforts throughout the fall. In total, more than 700 student volunteers educated their peers and made 23,000 GOTV contacts leading up to Election Day.
Data from the State Voices VAN shows that our work to register and turnout students in New Jersey was effective:
- 97% of the young people who the Student PIRGs’ New Voters Project helped to register leading up to the 2020 election turned out to vote.
- 95% of the young people contacted through our peer-to-peer GOTV program turned out to vote
New Jersey is just one state where we run a year-round organizing program that keeps students engaged in between elections.
Just last weekend, NJPIRG Students held their annual Grassroots Organizing Conference with over a dozen partner organizations, including League of Women Voters NJ, Sierra Club NJ, Action Together NJ, New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice and more. 60 young activists further developed their organizing skills, attending trainings including working with the media, developing campaign strategy, and building coalitions. Community partners and elected officials spoke as panelists and keynote speakers to provide insight into some of the pressing issues facing New Jersey.
Continuing local momentum
Continuing the momentum from the fall, students are still organizing locally to ensure this election’s historic turnout rates are just the beginning of a longer trend of youth voter engagement. Student leaders are working with their vote coalitions to solidify best practices from the fall by running trainings for faculty, institutionalizing effective vote policies with local election officials, and running effective campaigns on issues affecting their communities. Here are some of the highlights for our New Voters Project work this semester:
Illinois PIRG Campus Action is running multiple trainings across the state partnering with elected officials, campus administrators and county clerks. At the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign, we hosted a panel with Associate Dean of Students Dr. Gina Lee-Olukoya and Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons to discuss the turnout rates of young voters in Illinois.
Florida PIRG students, in partnership with Campus Vote Project, Ask Every Student, Institute for Democracy and Higher Education and others, hosted an organizing a training for faculty across the state to institutionalize voting on their campus to make voting and civic engagement a part of everyday campus life.
Building for 2022
We are excited to continue working with our campus vote coalitions, community partners, and election officials to ensure every citizen is able to participate in democracy. While youth voter engagement and turnout is at an all time high, we are continuing the work to ensure full voter participation on our more than 150 college campuses in 26 states.
By combining the best practices from organizing virtually this past year with our tried and tested in- person model to engage students, we will run our biggest midterm program yet by educating 900,000 students, making 300,000 personalized GOTV contacts, and helping register 60,000 young voters.