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Maine Campaign Strategists Search For Creative, Socially Distant Ways To Engage Young Voters

Nati Harnik

More than one-third of all eligible voters are under the age of 39, but historically, far fewer of them actually vote. In 2018, only about 36 percent voted. This year, political parties and advocacy groups are trying to get younger voters engaged through registration drives, but the restrictions of the pandemic have limited the ways in which they can operate.

Political scientists like to point out that if younger voters cast ballots at the rate of those over the age of 65, they could change the results of many elections. It is why so many successful campaigns have invested time and money in “Get out the Vote” efforts to identify their supporters and get them to the polls. But this year, that is a challenge for field organizers like Josh Velez of NextGen Maine, a campaign effort started by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer.

“We have to contact young voters in one way or another seven to eight times before they will get out to vote.”

And campaigns have lost some key tools they have used to make those contacts: no door-to-door canvassing, no large campaign rallies, no county fairs or sporting events. Even phone banks have had to change their methods. Gone are the centralized operations with dozens of phones in a room. Now it is individual volunteers calling from home.

Julian Snow, director of the NextGen effort in Maine, says the effort to connect with potential voters is now going out through social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, but he says phone banks are still being used to encourage people to register and vote by absentee ballot.

“We can reach back out in a couple of weeks and inquire to see if they got the application or if they filled it out correctly and if not, we can help them with that,” says Snow. “And then we can reach out again.”

Snow says that while getting a potential supporter registered is crucial, it won’t matter if they don’t actually vote. Progressive campaigns aren’t alone in this challenge. Republican National Committee spokesperson Nina McLaughlin says efforts to engage voters in Maine are using social media, phone banks and virtual meetings. In an email, McLaughlin says there have been 120 training sessions for volunteers and over 190 virtual meetings of supporters aimed at electing Republicans to offices at all levels. But younger voters are still a special challenge.

“Youth voting levels are always lower than older people,” says University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer. Brewer says the youth vote can make a difference, particularly in a close contest.

“There have been some campaigns in some election cycles that have been able to get younger voters more engaged than others, not on the level of their older counterparts, but more engaged.”

Brewer says that was true in the 2008 election of Barack Obama for president.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.