A key factor in this election cycle is whether young Georgians will vote in large numbers. About one in five active Georgia voters are younger than 29. Recent history shows that if they vote, they can decide elections.
Traditionally, 18 to 29-year-olds vote at lower percentages than any age group. More than 150,000 young Georgians have cast ballots thus far, state data shows.
Experts wonder if fewer young people will vote — particularly college students — because of the decrease in students on campus due to the coronavirus pandemic. Several private schools in Georgia are holding online-only classes this semester and fewer students are living on public campuses.
“The populations most impacted by the pandemic, which include racial minority groups, low-income voters and young people are the ones who are least likely to vote,” said Bernard Fraga, an Emory University associate political science professor.
The Washington Post reported last week that Republican Party activist Charlie Kirk told an audience of conservatives that up to half-million people may not vote because their campuses are closed.
''So, please keep the campuses closed,'' Kirk, 26, said during the August meeting as the audience cheered, according to video of the event.
Young voters came to the polls in unprecedented numbers to propel Barack Obama to presidential victories in 2008 and 2012. In 2016, their turnout was smaller, about 40%. The percentage of voters in that age group rose from 20% in 2014 to 36% four years later, federal data shows, as Democrats became the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races, two U.S. House races and the presidential race rank among the top 10 races in each category that could be decided by young voters, according to an analysis by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.
The percentage of Georgians younger than 29 who are registered to vote has increased from 18% to 21% in the last four years, state data shows. Several polls, including a September survey by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, show Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden with a 18 percentage point lead among young voters over President Donald Trump.
Barriers still exist in Georgia for college students who want to vote, experts say. While any form of student ID is acceptable to vote in 24 states, according to the Campus Vote Project, students attending private colleges in Georgia must show a different form of identification, such as a U.S. passport or military ID.
Also, only a handful colleges have polling places on campus. The University of Georgia approved early voting at Stegeman Coliseum in response to fierce criticism from students after the school initially said it was not hosting an on campus site.
Meanwhile, several young people say they are waiting weeks to get their absentee ballots. Bibb County resident Sadonna Fleming, 19, said she waited three weeks for her ballot before it arrived by mail to her home. The second-year student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said it would have likely been longer if she lived on campus.
“I feel like that would have been a disaster,” said Fleming, who is taking her classes at home because Howard moved its classes online this semester.
Many schools and organizations are conducting their own get out the vote efforts. Atlanta’s Black colleges, which are closed to students this semester, are doing voter registration efforts as part of what they’re calling “Votecoming" since there’s no in-person homecoming activities this fall. Atlanta Public Schools' Good Trouble Voter Campaign,” in honor of the late Congressman John Lewis, registered 576 students in about two weeks.
Voter outreach on college campuses often consists of rallies with celebrity appearances, but not this year because of the pandemic. Instead, Democratic and Republican student leaders have largely taken their outreach efforts to social media. Both presidential candidates have smartphone apps.
Georgia young Republican groups have held some in-person events with Trump supporters and are part of a nationwide student effort to get one million new votes for the president.
The Young Democrats of Georgia have held online forums with various candidates, such as U.S. Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock. The forums have included questions about student loan debt, healthcare and workers' rights, organizers said.
Fraga, the Emory professor, said the Biden campaign is focusing almost exclusively on a digital strategy to connect with young voters while Republicans are relying on student leaders to rally their peers. Multiple efforts to obtain comments from young GOP leaders in recent days were unsuccessful.
On a recent Friday afternoon outside the University of Georgia’s Tate Student Center, doctoral marketing students Krissa Nakos and Molly Ahearne said there hasn’t been much talk among classmates about the election.
Ahearne, 25, from Houston, Texas, said she’s been laser-focused on her studies and hasn’t voted because she needs to do more homework on some candidates.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Nakos, 24, from Cobb County, mailed in her ballot.
“I’ve been waiting for four years for this to be over,” Nakos, a Biden supporter, said of the Trump administration.
With many classes online, students say there’s little time before or after a class to talk politics. And there’s the perennial difficulty convincing some young people to vote who don’t think their vote will count because Georgia has been a red state or don’t like any of the candidates.
Carter Hamby, a Young Democrat of Georgia leader, said his response those not interested in voting is to tell them: “if you don’t vote, then you don’t have a right to come out and complain when things go badly and when our elected officials don’t represent the people."
Hamby, 17, a high school senior taking college courses at the University of North Georgia, can’t vote in this election. He’s too young.
“I wish I could,” he said. “It would definitely be an exciting election for my first, but it’s a little too early.”
YOUNG VOTERS BY THE NUMBERS
18 - the percentage of active registered voters in Georgia in 2016.
21 - the percentage of active registered voters in Georgia as of Sept. 1.
34 - the percentage who cast ballots in the November 2018 election.
152,151 - how many voters in that age group have cast ballots as of Oct. 19.
Sources: Georgia Secretary of State office, Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, U.S. Elections Project.