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Activists Enlist Social Media Influencers To Help Get Out The Vote

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Election after election, people say if younger people voted in larger numbers, they would transform politics. Election after election, many young people do not vote. But heavy recruitment efforts this year are aimed at reversing that trend with a focus on informing young people how to cast their ballots. NPR's Barbara Sprunt reports.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Camilo Villa, a sophomore at Providence College in Rhode Island, says there's one issue that's top of mind for him and his peers - getting ready to vote.

CAMILO VILLA: We finally get to perform, like, our first real adult civic duty. It's like, I'm a big boy now. I get to go out and vote for what I believe in.

SPRUNT: Youth turnout has trailed far behind the rates of older voters in the U.S. for decades. But Villa says this could be the year of the young voter.

VILLA: It's up to us, the younger people, to step up and prove them wrong and sway this election in a way that they're not expecting.

SPRUNT: One group trying to make that happen is When We All Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit launched in 2018 by former First Lady Michelle Obama. Stephanie Young is an executive with the group. She says 2020 is uniquely poised to be a turning point for young people participating in the electoral process.

STEPHANIE YOUNG: Because of COVID-19, because of the civil unrest that we're seeing, the continual police violence - all of these things that are happening right now. This is creating, I think, a little bit of a perfect storm to harness a new generation of Americans who are going to be interested in what's happening in their communities.

SPRUNT: The organization created My School Votes, a program to build registration programs in high schools where young people can take the lead themselves. That includes Gabrielle Forbes a high school senior in Miami who's registering peers despite being too young to vote herself this fall.

GABRIELLE FORBES: When the time comes, I'll be there. But in the meantime, I'm going to help every person that is eligible this year to register to vote. So it's actually very empowering for me.

SPRUNT: One of her jobs was piloting a new messaging campaign.

FORBES: We were one day just brainstorming ways of, how can we get us registered? And we - social media, hello (laughter). We use social media every day. And we have gotten so many recruitments, so many registrations.

SPRUNT: That campaign has sent over 90,000 direct messages and over 5 million texts to eligible voters. Young says she's also focused on reaching young people where they're already visiting, posting voter registration information on popular blogs and working with online influencers.

YOUNG: They literally could be the only person that talks about voting in someone's life. Yes, do your makeup tutorials. Yes, you know, critique the latest reality show. Do all the stuff that you do every day on your social media, but take time to talk about voting.

SPRUNT: Sunshine Hillygus, a professor at Duke University, says youth turnout jumped in 2018. But there's still a long ways to go.

SUNSHINE HILLYGUS: That unprecedented, you know, surge was an increase from, like, 20% to something like 30% turnout. It's still just a really low level of participation.

SPRUNT: Hillygus co-authored "Making Young Voters," which looks at why youth turnout is so low.

HILLYGUS: It's not about convincing them that it's important to vote. Instead of telling people that voting is cool with having celebrities say that they should go vote, maybe we need a send calendar reminders.

SPRUNT: She also says young people need more information on how to request and fill out an absentee ballot and are more likely to spoil their ballot because they're unfamiliar with it by, say, not signing in the right place. Hillygus argues, to truly increase turnout among young people, there has to be a fundamental shift in civics education.

HILLYGUS: The important information is not memorizing who's the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The important information is, what is the date by which you must register? What should you do if you get up there and they say that you're not on the list?

SPRUNT: Those are the questions advocates hope to help young people answer now that the first absentee ballots are already going out in the mail.

Barbara Sprunt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.