Colorado youth turnout on pace to notch impressive numbers, again

The Centennial State this year, as in years past, will offer a counternarrative to the gloomy line that paints young Americans as digitally distracted slackers who can’t be bothered to vote, or can’t be motivated to vote, or some toxic combination of the two.

“People are so mean to young voters,” Lizzy Stephan, executive director at youth-politics group New Era Colorado, told The Independent this week. “People are so pessimistic about them, but we just haven’t seen that on the ground. Young people here are excited to vote and they do vote.”

The work of political scientists, election research groups and news outlets around the country support that observation. Colorado has bucked low-turnout trends around the country. It ranked third among the states in young-voter turnout in the elections of 2012 and 2014. This year, among the 15 states that collect and post early voting data, Colorado is the only one that has seen the number of voters between 18 and 29 years old increase. Local pollster Magellan at the end of October listed youth voter share at 12.57 percent, up 1.37 percent from 2012. On Election Day, Magellan’s David Flaherty tweeted that 20 percent of millennial voters had cast ballots and that the percent was rising steadily.

“They’re streaming in; they’ve been streaming in for two days,” said Michelle Krezek, a county employee and member of the voter ambassador team that helps manage polling place crowds. She was  standing in the hall outside the University of Colorado Boulder polling center, where students lined up down the hall and out the door into the student union courtyard. There was a large events-style voter “staging tent” set up in the courtyard filling up with more student voters.

“We had more than a thousand voters yesterday and we’ll have more than that certainly today,” said Krezek.

She was talking about in-person voters, but estimated that there was likely an equal number of students who came and delivered their ballots to the adjacent drop-off center for collection.

“Sixty-five percent of young voters typically cast their ballots in the last five days of the election,” Stephan said. “We expect the same this year — even though we’ve seen large numbers voting early. I think we’ll still see a wave.”

Millennials make up a larger portion of the population in Colorado than they do in any other state. Indeed, Colorado’s millennials have been a crucial voting bloc in the right-to-left political realignment of the state over the past decade, part of the informal coalition with Latino voters and suburban women that has put Democratic majorities into the Legislature and that has put swing-state Colorado into the blue column in the last two presidential elections. If Colorado goes for Clinton tonight, as most observers believe it will, young voters again will have played a major role.

New Era announced at the end of October that its staff and volunteers this election cycle had registered 50,000 young voters, a record number in the group’s ten-year history.

New Era is a consistently innovative organization. It hosts carnivalesque voter registration drives and game show candidate debates. It distributes clever voter guides and organizes artful issue campaigns. But Stephan explains that, at root, getting young people to vote is not about innovation or art. It’s about issues and mechanics. Colorado wins on both counts. Colorado’s typically numerous ballot issues — which include a proposed minimum wage increase this year — drive youth voter interest. As to voting mechanics, Stephan said Colorado’s  Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013 has had an enormous effect.

New Era staffers and interns rode voters to polling centers around the CU-Boulder campus in rented and decorated golf carts.
New Era staffers and interns rode voters to polling centers around the CU-Boulder campus in rented and decorated golf carts.

The law mandated that ballots be mailed to every registered voter in the state. It eliminated assigned polling places and established county-wide voting centers and drop-off stations, like the one on the CU campus. It also allows for same-day voter registration up until polls close on Election Day.

“Everyone in our orbit is watching to see what happens in Colorado this year. They know we’ve got this new election law. They’re thinking, ’OK, let’s see, there are ballots in everyone’s hands. Does it make a difference? What kind of difference?”

Stephan said that the law has changed the conversations her group has with young people. Mainly, now, there are all kinds of ways to problem solve.

“We can be really concrete and get the positive outcome would-be voters are looking for. We can make it happen,” Stephan said. “They misplaced their ballot. No problem. They live in Boulder but are registered in Denver. We can do this… I mean, relief just washes over them. You should see, we have a new text help line, and the responses that come in are filled with exclamation points and happy emojis.”

Photos by John Tomasic