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Young people launch initiative to turn Gen Z into largest voting bloc in the U.S.

The largest voting bloc is the most elusive: youth. Getting Gen Z on board, Voteology looks to show where a single vote has the biggest impact.
Clockwise from top left: Holly Frank, Claire Scoggins, Miranda Philps, Juliana Bain, Devki Trivedi, Noe Abernathy, Stella Sotos, Sydney Kulok and Abby Anderson invented Voteology, a website that helps college students figure out whether their vote will have more impact at their home address or their school address.
Clockwise from top left: Holly Frank, Claire Scoggins, Miranda Philps, Juliana Bain, Devki Trivedi, Noe Abernathy, Stella Sotos, Sydney Kulok and Abby Anderson invented Voteology, a website that helps college students figure out whether their vote will have more impact at their home address or their school address.Joanna Neborsky / for NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

During the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, who lost the youth vote to her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, extended a hand toward the demographic.

"I don't know who created Pokémon Go," Clinton said with a large smile at a July campaign rally in Virginia, "but I'm trying to figure out how we get them to Pokémon Go to the polls."

The line was widely mocked. And yet the crux of what Clinton was saying has long eluded politicians: How do you inspire young voters to get to the polls?

In 2018, voter turnout among those 18 to 29 years old reached 36 percent in the midterm elections, a share that was 79 percent higher than it was in 2014. But it still trailed nationwide average turnout among all voters, which hit a midterm record, 53.4 percent.

A group of recent college graduates is working to shrink the voter turnout gap between Generation Z and baby boomers. They posit that young people need to be convinced that their individual votes have power. Together, they launched Voteology, a website that algorithmically determines whether your vote would have more impact at your home address or your college address.

It's an effort to underscore how a single vote can matter.

Voteology's algorithm looks at the margin of the last presidential election in people's home states and those of their colleges, the last House races in those districts and whether there is a Senate seat or a governorship up for grabs that would be more easily swayed. With this information and a handful of other factors, the site recommends where users should register. Then it leads users through the registration process in the state where that vote would create the bigger impact.

The site aims to reach 500,000 college students this fall, said Juliana Bain, who began the project as a note in her iPhone after the 2016 election when she realized that many young people she knew didn't vote.

Voteology is far from the first youth voter initiative. Back in 1990, Rock the Vote, associated at the time with the MTV music channel, announced that it would appeal to the elusive youngest voters. Since then, Rock the Vote has registered about 12 million people and recruited actors and musicians to convey the message that voting is cool, nonpartisan and broadly important.

Newer groups are trying a more tactical approach.

Voteology, which is also nonpartisan, is targeting students in six battleground states — Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona — where margins could be tight enough for college students to help swing the results.

Bain, 22, who graduated from Cornell University this spring with a degree in math and computer science, said she wants Voteology to welcome her generation into the political process while "drawing attention to the disparities gerrymandering and the Electoral College have created in the empirical value of votes."

Noe Abernathy, 22, who runs the group's operations, said, "If young people had higher turnout, we could be the largest voting bloc in the U.S., and the policy changes we want to see could be more recognized on a national scale."

That isn't hyperbole. More than 15 million Americans have turned 18 since the 2016 presidential election. And Americans ages 18 to 32 make up the largest voting population group, according to analysis by the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which focuses on the political life of young people in the U.S.

Where they vote matters. Abernathy grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, which, as she puts it, "goes blue in every single race." When she got to Cornell at the beginning of 2016, she didn't even know she could re-register in New York. Her new home, Ithaca, was represented in Congress by a Republican, and she could vote against him.

Every election, people talk about how to get young people to vote, said Abby Kiesa, the director of impact at the Tufts center, but they rarely acknowledge the hurdles young people face to get to the polls.

The challenges, Kiesa said, include the basic one of outreach: Voting organizations are more likely to contact people who are already registered or have voted before than first-time voters. Young voters also face a huge education gap in understanding why voting matters. And in the 39 states the center surveyed in June, registration among 18- to 24-year-olds was higher than 2016 levels in 20 states, but among first-time presidential voters ages 18 and 19, registration was down in 30 of the 39 states compared to the last election. The gaps, Kiesa said, aren't about youth interest: They demonstrate whether states have robust electoral and civic infrastructures. With in-person outreach limited during the pandemic, young people could easily fall further through the cracks this year, she said.

This year, focusing on college campuses is hard. It's difficult to determine what happens if a student moves on campus, registers and then has to go home because COVID-19 shuts down the campus. In addition, some states also have laws engineered to discourage out-of-state students from registering to vote on campus.

But campuses are far from the only place to find younger voters. "Almost 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds don't have any college experiences," Kiesa said. It's these young people who are often even further ignored by the political system.

Still, Kiesa has faith in young people, who she says "are filling the gaps themselves."

Abernathy and the other women behind Voteology hope the site can help fill in those gaps, even if it can't get to all of them. They want to reach voters who might not even like who is on the ballot but should participate anyway.

"Just because you don't think Biden or Trump represent who you want to run our country doesn't mean you should sit out," Abernathy said.

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