It’s the day of Michigan’s presidential primary. We’re at Michigan State University.
In the 2020 elections, the youth vote could be (to quote the president) huge. Yes, you see thousands of young voters at rallies like the one Bernie Sanders held in Ann Arbor this weekend. But it’s bigger than that.
Voters under the age of 35 are now a bigger chunk of the electorate than the boomers. They’re bigger than Gen X. And their record-setting turnout in 2018 helped push Democrats over the line to victory in critical congressional districts like Michigan’s 8th.
Donald Trump won Michigan by some 10,700 votes in 2016 – and Michigan State University alone has more than 40,000 students.
But so far, looking at the states that have already voted in 2020, the youth turnout is kind of… meh.
It’s generally higher than it was the last time only one party had a competitive primary. But it’s nothing like the surge we saw in 2018.
“They’re not as high as we would have wanted, but we are seeing an increase in numbers,” says Lateshia Parker with Next Gen Michigan, a progressive nonprofit and PAC funded by billionaire (and former Democratic presidential candidate) Tom Steyer that works to boost youth turnout.
Parker is here on MSU’s campus with one of Next Gen’s field organizers, Karl Stafford. He’s packing up a big bag with popcorn and Kit Kats they’ll give out to voters, along with “Know Your Rights” information pamphlets.
As we start walking through the crowded Wells Hall, Parker notes she’s not seeing a lot of “I Voted” stickers.
“So maybe everybody did absentee,” she says hopefully. “Or maybe the precincts ran out. Or they’re not giving them out.”
Maybe the precincts ran out?
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
But then we get to the intramural gym that’s serving as a polling place for East Lansing’s Precinct 15. About a half-dozen people are voting now, during the middle of the day.
Parker’s mouth twists into a grimace. “Huh. It’s empty. I don’t know if I had expectations, but it’s empty.”
To be clear, this is just one precinct, so you really can’t draw big conclusions from it. The precinct captain tells me yes, it’s a little quiet, but they’re expecting more students to show up later in the day.
And there are reasons why it’s historically harder to get younger voters to the polls.
I spent the morning camped outside that gym, accosting the trickle of folks who came out with “I Voted” stickers – and latching onto several folks who were just at the intramural building for classes or to work out.
A couple of them were apathetic.
But for the most part, young voters showing up here were making time to come vote, between school and jobs.
“I’m a pretty busy person, I mean I do work and I do have clases and I have an advisory meeting,” says Sahreyah Herring-Jones, a student from Pontiac. “But I’m willing to take the extra step because I believe my vote matters.”
Herring-Jones is actually walking out of the gym after getting turned away: turns out she’s still registered at an old address. That’s not an unusual road bump when you’re frequently moving between student housing and apartments.
So now she’s going to city hall to get it straightened out. It’s that important to her.
“If the boomers are turning out, and you’re not turning out, you can only be mad at yourself,” Herring-Jones says.
(By the way, she’s voting for Bernie Sanders. Just like every other student voter I talked to at this precinct.)
Stafford, the Next Gen Michigan field organizer, walks out of the polling place with a voter who’s filling out one of the group’s questionnaires. Make sure you get all your friends to vote too, Parker and Stafford urge her. “I already texted all my friends!” she says. Bring them back yourself, they tell her.
Stafford makes a good effort to offer snacks and pamphlets to the sparse crowd walking by. He thought he’d be like Oprah, he says, coming out here with free snacks. “You get a granola bar! And you get a granola bar!” he laughs.
That’s because in 2016, students at this polling place lined up for hours to vote. Stafford shows me a time-lapse video he took at the time. The line wraps around the first floor and up a staircase.
So what’s changed? I ask him. Are primaries just less sexy, less exciting?
“I’m not too sure,” he says. It does feel like a different political climate, he adds.
Parker nods. Trump was on the ballot in 2016, and 2018 felt like a referendum on his policies for many progressive voters. That’s not the case with an all-Democratic primary.
“Then it was Trump and Hillary,” she says. “That’s two very very different candidates than what we’re dealing with now.”
Before I go, I ask Parker and Stafford if our photographer, Katie, can come by and take some photos of them. Sure, they laugh, but can we go back to the Next Gen table at Wells hall where at least there are more people?
Editor’s note: As of 9:15 p.m. on Tuesday, March 10, Joe Biden was projected to win the Michigan primary.