Democratic organizers and campaigns are hoping young voters in Georgia will break turnout records again — or at least come close — and give the winning edge to the party’s candidates in a pair of January runoffs that will determine control of the Senate.
The contests will be the first test of whether the surge among young people in November that helped deliver President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state can be replicated in lower-turnout elections when President Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot and as the coronavirus continues to disrupt the routines of many college students.
In the presidential race, voters under the age of 30 were decisive in key swing states, particularly in Georgia, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
“It is a much bigger lift for people to vote in a non-November election,” she said. “In primaries or off-year elections turnout is a lot lower, especially for young people because we’re still talking about people who are building habits of voting.”
In coinciding Jan. 5 runoffs, Jon Ossoff (D), a documentary film producer, faces Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), and the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D), senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, is challenging Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.).
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has continued to help register new voters and plans to keep investing in digital mobilization efforts. The Ossoff campaign said it’s also still running voter registration drives and will work to register the 23,000 newly eligible voters who turn 18 by the time of the runoffs.
Young voters were listed in a press release Monday as a “key” constituency being targeted through coordinated outreach efforts by the DSCC, the Warnock and Ossoff campaigns, and the state Democratic Party. The registration deadline is Dec. 7, and early voting begins on Dec. 14.
“Georgia had unprecedented youth turnout in this election, helped by our campaign’s and other organizations’ relentless focus on younger voters and Jon’s resonance with them,” Ossoff spokeswoman Miryam Lipper said.
Georgia voters under 30 years old were pivotal in putting Biden over the top, with 58% of them voting for him to 39% for Trump, according to an analysis by the Tufts center. Biden garnered about 187,000 more votes than Trump in that age group, and he won the state by fewer than 13,000 votes.
Turnout among voters between the ages of 18 and 24 rose to 47% in November, up from 34% in 2016, while participation among voters aged 25 to 29 increased to 48% from 43% four years ago, according to a breakdown by the voter file firm Catalist and Bernard Fraga at Emory University.
The boost in youth turnout was “striking,” said Tom Bonier, chief executive of the Democratic firm, TargetSmart. He said two of the major trends he saw in Georgia were the higher voter participation among both young people and people of color.
In a state that’s home to prominent Historically Black Colleges and Universities, nine out of 10 young Black voters backed Biden while almost two-thirds of young White voters supported Trump, according to the Tufts analysis.
While youth turnout made the difference for Biden in some battleground states, Kawashima-Ginsberg said lower youth turnout can also “lead to the demise of a candidate.” The lack of mobilization on college campuses because of closures and the constraints of organizing during the pandemic likely cost some Democratic candidates their races, she said.
And in future races, Trump not being on the ticket may motivate fewer people, said Sarah Anzia, the director of the University of California, Berkeley Institute for Young Americans.
“There are a lot of reasons to think this is actually a really big challenge when you think about carrying over that high youth turnout into January,” said Anzia, who wrote a book about turnout in off-cycle elections. “Are they even going to be in the state? Many aren’t even going to be there. That’s an extra layer of complication that older, less mobile people don’t face.”
Ciarra Malone, a recent Kennesaw State University graduate and the Campus Vote Project’s Georgia coordinator, said the runoffs present a “unique situation” with college students both leaving and returning to Georgia for the winter break. She said many now are figuring out how to change their registration, find new polling locations, and request ballots again.
Campus Vote Project is launching targeted texting campaigns and direct outreach at colleges across Georgia, as well as hosting webinars for students at HBCUs.
Bhavin Patel, president of College Democrats of Georgia, said he’s not too concerned that students won’t turn out at the same levels in January, noting that students in Georgia are enthusiastic about Ossoff and Warnock.
“It’s very inspiring to see a young person in Georgia potentially representing us in the U.S. Senate,” Patel said of Ossoff, 33.
National and local groups like the New Georgia Project, March for Our Lives Georgia, NextGen America, and Students for 2020 are planning to continue their efforts through January, focusing on registering newly eligible voters and making sure others know how to vote in these runoffs.
March for Our Lives Georgia has targeted students on college campuses, dropping off election information in dorms and student apartments around Atlanta. Rhea Wunsch, the state director for March for Our Lives Georgia, said the main hurdles are people not knowing about the runoff elections and that they have to vote again. Wunsch said she doesn’t expect the same turnout as in November but that young people are still energized.
“We made a point in the last election,” she said, “and we’ve seen the difference that we can make in Georgia.”
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