In 2018, Beyoncé fans can register to vote at the On The Run II Tour, high schoolers can register from their classrooms and shoppers can register at a participating Levi Strauss location.
Voter registration campaigns have long tried to reach young voters where they are, but they’re more successful during presidential campaigns, when turnout is up. Organizers this year, however, are hoping things will be different.
“There’s certainly a lot of signs that we’re going to see increased turnout,” said Andy Bernstein, founder and executive director of the nonprofit voter registration group HeadCount, which partnered with the On The Run II Tour, and other brands and musicians. “Everybody seems more engaged.”
As of last week, HeadCount has registered more than 40,000 people for the midterms. Their goal is 75,000, triple their previous midterm record. And the Ad Council just picked up a 30-second HeadCount spot that will be shown on television and in movie theaters. They estimate it will be seen at least 10 million times.
“For a non-profit getting picked up by the Ad Council is the holy grail,” he said. “It’s the biggest deal.”
In past midterm years, the election was seen as a strictly political event, but in 2018, “You have media and brands making the midterm elections a focus of messaging, and really trying to turn it to a cultural event,” Bernstein said. Companies that are “very, very conscious of being nonpartisan have really gotten behind the voting message,” he said.
CEOs for companies including Walmart, Southwest, Kaiser Permanente and Tyson signed onto Time To Vote, committing to giving employees time off to vote. The group also includes companies whose CEOs have been critical of President Donald Trump, like Patagonia and Gap.
Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock The Vote, said she thought brands today were “more willing to invest in creating a culture of civic engagement for their employees and their customers.” Her group partners with brands including Cosmopolitan, HBO, and Tinder.
Rock The Vote also partnered with American Eagle, which is selling voting tees and sponsoring Rock The Vote’s “Democracy Class” at more than 2,000 high schools. The class is estimated to register 160,000 voters, DeWitt said. In a statement marking National Voter Registration Day today, she called the “energy and engagement we have seen from our youth” since 2016 “unprecedented.”
There are other registration efforts, like Twitter’s #BeAVoter campaign, which includes a special emoji and prompts on users’ timelines encouraging users to register. MTV’s “+1thevote,” launched at the Video Music Awards, is its first-ever midterm registration drive. The campaign encourages people to bring their plus one to vote with them, after MTV research found people aged 15-22 are more likely to think inviting a friend to a polling place encourages others to vote than posting about voting on social media does.
The United States trails most other developed countries in voter turnout, with 56% of the voting-age population voting in 2016 (Canada’s figure is 62% and Mexico is nearly 66%). Younger voters during midterms especially haven’t shown up. In 2014, less than a quarter of eligible Millennial voters said they voted, according to Pew.
But today’s young voters could prove to be a powerful political force because of their sheer numbers. In 2016, the combined number of eligible voters who were 35 or younger rivaled the number of Baby Boomers, and next year, Millennials are projected to surpass Boomers as America’s largest living generation, according to Census estimates.
Young voters could be driven by the polls in opposition to Trump. Nearly 60% of those 18-29 disapprove of disapprove of how Trump is handling his job as president, the highest disapproval rate of any age group.
Bernstein, the HeadCount executive director, also credits the activism of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students with heightening youth interest in voting. “There’s no question that the Parkland students are a catalyst for getting a lot of people focused on elections,” he said. “It was the first time that I remember that kids were talking to kids about voting. This was the year that the message was really coming from young people and it wasn’t coming from a celebrity reading a script.”
There still will be plenty of celebrities this years reading from scripts, though. And teleprompters. Former first lady Michelle Obama, co-chair of the voter registration group When We Vote, recorded an ad for the group and is holding events for them.
While her husband is campaigning for Democratic candidates, Obama said she wasn’t going to tell anyone how to vote, and made her pitch apolitical. It’s as if the former first couple were, in this heavily anticipated midterm year, maintaining their former White House lanes. The ex-president is getting political while the former FLOTUS campaigns for civic engagement in the national interest.
“It doesn’t matter what leaders you elect,” Obama said Sunday at her When We Vote event in Nevada. “If they don’t have your vote behind them, there’s only so much they can do. It is not about the leader. The power of our democracy is in us.”