Kobey Lofton is 15 — too young to vote, but not too young to get political.
Over spring break, he plotted with other young activists on the west side of Chicago to set up voter registration booths at school and make regular announcements over the intercom urging his slightly older classmates to vote.
“Students are waking up,” said Kobey, a sophomore at North Lawndale College Prep. “Suddenly they are saying, ‘OK, now that I know my vote does matter, I can do something.’”
It’s been more than six weeks since the massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., launched a generation often maligned as self-absorbed and politically apathetic on a fierce campaign for gun control and school safety. Young activists have staged walkouts, led massive rallies throughout the country, taken to social media to challenge lawmakers, and demanded town hall meetings with politicians.
Hoping to sustain their momentum, they are now beginning to focus on the November midterm election.
Young people are one of the biggest untapped forces in U.S. politics.
By next year, millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, are projected to outnumber baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. But they go to the polls in staggeringly small numbers.
In the 2014 midterm election, turnout among 18- to 20-year-olds was 15%, among the lowest in a national election since the voting age was changed from 21 in 1971.
“Young Americans are absolutely taken advantage of because we don’t get out and vote,” said David Hogg, 17, a Stoneman Douglas senior and an organizer of the March for Our Lives rally last month. “What we’re doing here is bringing voting beyond just, ‘Oh, it’s your civic duty,’ but into a cultural thing among teens…. We’re making it a badge of shame if you don’t get out and vote.”
If the teen activists succeed in bringing their generation to the polls, it could signal a significant shift in American politics.
“This movement has real potential to change the course of engagement for a generation,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. “If they can bring about an incredible surge in turnout, I think they’ll change the way that us adults view young people as voting blocs.”
Even though young people have been heavily involved over the last decade in volunteering and spreading their ideas on social media, Kawashima-Ginsberg said, they tended to detach voting from social change. Unlike recent youth movements such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy and the “Dreamers,” March for Our Lives has from the beginning put an explicit emphasis on electoral politics.
“Now they really seem to see their vote, in a significant way, to change policies and to change societies,” she said. “That’s new.”
The power of their personal stories has already helped deliver some surprising results. Within three weeks of the Parkland shooting, Florida's largely Republican Legislature — under pressure from students — defied the National Rifle Assn. and passed a $400-million school safety bill. The students didn’t get everything they wanted, but the new law did what some saw as politically impossible and increased the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21.
“Pretty much every state legislator is talking about them,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “That’s the kind of thing that really can convince young people, including teenagers, that they can have an impact. And that’s the key in connecting the issue to vote, which has not been done before.”
While shooting incidents involving students have decreased in the last two decades — according to researchers at Northeastern University, four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s — young organizers hope to harness society’s heightened fear of school shootings to make gun reform an issue that could make or break a politician.
Matt Deitsch, a graduate of Stoneman Douglas and head of messaging and outreach for March for Our Lives, said Donald Trump’s embrace of immigration policy — an issue Republicans had sidestepped — and the success that had in propelling him to the party’s nomination offers a lesson for young activists.
“If we can do that with gun reform and public safety — making it an issue they have to address from Day One of the campaign — I think we’ll end up with better leaders,” Deitsch said.
Teenagers are worried they are not safe in schools and are impatient with a political system in which politicians on both sides of the aisle tend to be steered by lobbyists rather than the will of the public, Deitsch said.
“When 97% of the country wants universal background checks and it’s still a polarizing issue in Congress, Congress doesn’t represent us,” he said, referring to a February Quinnipiac University survey. “That’s just a fact.”
Already, voter registration activists are fanning across the country to target the roughly 4 million Americans who turn 18 this year, as well as a large number of 19- to 21-year-olds who have never voted.
“I don’t ever remember a time where 17- and 18-year-olds were publicly calling on each other in a high-profile way to register and vote,” said Andy Bernstein, founder of HeadCount, a nonprofit group that promotes voter participation. “We now have, for the really first time in memory, a situation in our country where people are really focusing on first-time voters, on kids who are just turning 18, as a political force.”
Until now, HeadCount carried out voter registration drives mostly at concerts. But after registering 4,800 voters Saturday at the March for Our Lives demonstrations — the largest voter registration drive in the group’s nearly 15-year history — the group plans to expand its reach to high schools by releasing a short guide to running voter registration drives.
“If some schools do it, there’s just no reason they all can’t,” Bernstein said. “This should be the norm in every school in America.”
Nearly overnight, mobilizing young people has become a key strategy for groups advocating stricter gun laws, with unprecedented amounts of money being devoted to that goal.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit created in response to the 2012 mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., announced this week it would invest $1 million in a new grant program to help students organize grass-roots “Students Demand Action” chapters to push legislative change in their states.
The group will also partner with Giffords, the gun violence prevention organization founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the Democratic former Arizona congresswoman who survived a 2011 assassination attempt, to offer students tools to organize voter registration drives.
“The momentum is going to continue to build because people are frustrated with the fact that Congress has not taken action,” said Isabelle James, political director of Giffords.
Even a moderate boost in youth turnout in the 2018 midterm election could have an enduring, long-term generational effect. Studies show that young people who vote early are more likely to form a habit of voting during their lifetime.
A surge in young voters is likely to pose a particular threat to Republican candidates in suburban swing districts. They are already contending with a groundswell of opposition from energized Democrats and tepid support from moderate Republicans turned off by President Trump.
About 59% of millennial voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. Factor in the long history of Republican opposition to gun control measures and the political threat becomes even clearer.
Still, many of the student activists insist their call for gun reform is nonpartisan. Democrats and Republicans alike, they emphasize, can support their goal of banning assault weapons, prohibiting the sale of high-capacity magazines and closing loopholes in background-check laws that allow people to purchase firearms online and at gun shows.
“Safety is not a political issue,” said Elizabeth Grubb, an 18-year-old senior in California’s Central Valley and member of Fresno March for Our Lives, who is trying to set up an April 7 town hall meeting with Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican who represents California’s 22nd Congressional District.
“We want everyone from all sides to be involved,” said Grubb, who is a Democrat. “The idea is not to have liberal voters or conservative voters to come out and vote. A compromise benefits all sides.”