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How will Democratic candidates engage young voters this election cycle?

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet headlines meet-and-greet on Sunday
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to a crowd Sunday at a candidate’s meet-and-greet for La Plata County Democrats. (Tyler Brown/Durango Herald)

Young voter participation is critically important in every election.

That’s what U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said in an interview during his visit to Durango on Sunday.

Bennet was a guest speaker at a meet-and-greet forum for La Plata County Democrats. He took time to share his perspective on how his party can engage young voters this November.

Young voter turnout has been heavily discussed since the 2016 presidential election when fewer than half of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 participated, according to the U.S. Census. And 7% fewer young voters participated in Colorado midterms compared with the 2018 midterms, according to data research from Tufts University Tisch College.

On Sunday, about six people under the age of 30 attended the meet-and-greet at the Fort Lewis College Center for Innovation, which drew about 50 people total.

“Every election is really important for young voters because the decisions that we’re making or not making are much more important to them than anybody else, because they’ve got a lot more life,” Bennet said.

Candidates running for Colorado House District 59, Colorado Senate District 6 and the La Plata County commissioners race for districts 2 and 3, were able to introduce themselves to voters during the forum.

“We need to involve them today. We can’t wait until Election Day in the campaign,” Bennet said about Democratic candidates trying to reach young voters this upcoming election cycle.

Hays Stritikus, 19, attended the event on Sunday in support of the candidates running for their respective positions. Stritikus just finished his freshman year of college at Richmond University.

“I think it’s young voters looking at our leadership in the Senate – Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi – and they’re not seeing themselves,” he said of the lack of participation among young voters.

He said access to abortion rights was one of the top issues that candidates needed to emphasize to appeal to young voters this November.

Aisha O’Neil, a senior at Durango High School, also attended the event. She will be of voting age for the first time in November. She wanted to hear what candidates had to say about environmental policy.

O’Neil serves as the president of the DHS Green Team, a club dedicated to environmental sustainability on campus.

“It’s an issue that will define the lives of our children or their grandchildren and every generation that comes after us,” she said.

O’Neil pointed toward the division among political parties as a reason young people are pessimistic about voting.

“We’ve been told more to vote against a party rather than to vote for a party,” she said. “I think the main way that parties can increase younger voter turnout is to one, have younger candidates, and two, inspire them to vote for you, not against the other person.”

She added that younger candidates tend to have a more positive outlook when it comes to their campaign.

But for local candidates, it can be hard to gain young voter engagement.

House District 59 candidate Katie Stewart intends to spend time talking to students at Fort Lewis College as part of her campaign. She said young voters often don’t realize how impactful local elections are.

“I’m definitely going to be having those conversations and reaching out digitally through social media,” she said.

Stewart will be taking on Republican candidate and Ignacio Mayor Clark Craig in November. She is advocating for protecting women’s reproductive rights and access to “adequately” funded health care.

For Colorado Sen. District 6 candidate Vivian Smotherman, engaging young voters is all she has done, especially after just graduating last weekend from FLC.

“I have had two amazing years connecting with the younger people around here,” she said. “I have so much support from the college students out there that are ready to jump in and are going to work with my campaign and help to get that word out.”

Affordable housing solutions, rural health care accessibility and funding education are among Smotherman’s top issues.

One of her primary concerns has to do with Anthem’s and CommonSpirit’s inability to come to an agreement regarding the rate of reimbursement for care.

The contract between the two entities expired last week forcing thousands of patients across the Four Corners to either travel to an in-network hospital or pay bills for out-of-network care.

“Your customers are paying you as an insurance company to take care of them,” Smotherman said. “You don’t have a right to then say, ‘If it’s not that big of a profit, then we’re not going to take care of you anymore.’ It’s unconscionable.”


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