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Youths could swing the election. Will they turn out to vote?

As young people grow disillusioned with national politics, some turn to local engagement
Luke Huttl, a Fort Lewis College student, drops off a ballot Nov. 7, 2023, at the voter service center at FLC. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

As the 2024 presidential election looms, concerns over youth voter turnout is quickly becoming a sweeping concern among politico pundits.

Just 49% of young Americans ages 18-29 plan to vote in the 2024 presidential election compared to the 57% who planned to vote in the last election, according to the Harvard Institute youth poll.

“I think it is fair to say that younger voters may feel apathetic about the political situation,” said Wyatt Briar, a student and vice president of the Political Engagement Project at Fort Lewis College. “And I think that's rightly justified. As a generation, we face a lot of critical existential issues that aren't being addressed by a lot of partisan gridlock in Washington.”

The dissatisfaction over partisan politics is not necessarily turning into political inaction, however, according to students and experts interviewed for this story. Rather, it is turning the focus away from Washington and to the legislative halls closer to home.

“Yes, the presidential election is really critical, but let's go into the full ballot,” said Paul DeBell, a professor of political science at Fort Lewis College. “Let's talk about our ballot initiatives. Let's talk about our county commissioners, let's talk about our DA.”

Despite the overall sense of dissatisfaction with politics among young people, they are undeniably involved voters. In 2020, with the highest voter turnout in the 21st century, 51% of people ages 18-24 voted, one of the highest youth turnouts for generations. That was still far fewer compared to the 76% of voters 65 and older. In the 2022 midterm elections, youth turnout fell to 23%.

Wiley Johnson, a Fort Lewis College student, drops off a ballot Nov. 7, 2023, at the voter service center at FLC. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Briar and DeBell said the paralysis of politics in Washington paired with a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump may dampen enthusiasm this election cycle among young voters. They are trying to show students there are other ways to become involved in politics, including fighting for certain causes.

“There's a lot that we can collaborate on and work together on, even if Washington is stuck in gridlock or the same old dudes,” DeBell said.

That can be turned into action voting on the reproductive rights ballot measures that are up for consideration this year.

Camila Navarrette, spokeswoman for the progressive youth organization New Era Colorado, said her organization is turning more state focused as young voters become increasingly disconnected with national politics.

“This doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue our work at the federal level,” Navarrette said.

Young voters are issue-driven, Navarrette said. “... We're not just going to default to voting for somebody because they are aligned with the party we are currently aligned with. We're going to look at their history, we're going to look at their issues.”

The housing crisis, reproductive rights, social justice and economic justice are issues that are taking center stage, according to a survey of state youth by New Era Colorado.

As important as local organizing is, Briar said voting in elections is still a vital part of creating widespread change. “Elected officials will gravitate their policy choices toward what we have to say if we prove that our votes have a very important impact on who wins an election or not,” Briar said.

Navarrette agreed, emphasizing the importance of voting, even if it is only to vote a straight ticket down the ballot. “Something we (at New Era Colorado) always say is that your vote is your voice, and you can choose how to wield it,” Navarrette said.

Eliza DuBose, a senior at American University, is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez. She can be reached at the edubose@durangoherald.com.