Voting at Santa Fe County Fairgrounds began at a clip Nov. 6 with early-morning voters emerging just after 7 am, some with coffee, some without, all appearing to be in a rush to head out into the day. Among them were some of the younger voters whose participation in this year's midterm election has been a focal point for campaign mobilization and news stories.
A Nov. 2 New York Times story reported that based on one recent poll, youth voting could be the highest in decades. In New Mexico, those engaged with youth voter turnout also have seen increased participation and interest heading into the midterms. Some say the Trump administration's extreme views on issues such as immigration have galvanized younger voters, which tends to benefit the Democratic Party.
"If you're on the democratic side of the aisle, you want to mobilize as much youth as possible," says Lonna Atkeson, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and director for the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy in Albuquerque. "Because it looks like their attitudes are more aligned with yours."
In New Mexico, however, it remains to be seen whether the youth demographic is significant enough to impact races. Of the state's approximately 1.26 million eligible voters, 324,010 are between 18 and 34 years old—approximately 26 percent, according to information provided by the Secretary of State's Office. That's slightly more than the 300,353 voters in the 35 to 50 range, but each demographic is dwarfed by the 637,261 registered voters who are older than 51.
Patrick Flores, 24, and Bianca Dominguez, 27, emerged just after 7:20 am at the fairgrounds, having cast their ballots. Both have voted before, but see this election as particularly important, "especially with what's happening with immigration and what Trump has put immigrants through," Flores said.
Both said they had also been encouraging their peers. "We can change things by voting," Dominguez said.
Lily Etsitty, 26, said the midterm election was important to her because of the chance to vote in local races. "It's our home state," she said, noting that education issues were particularly important to her because she has young children at home.
As for Cooper Gerrard, 27, "Honestly, I just wanted to vote," he said, noting that his two main issues were "civil rights and environmentalism."
Advocates reach for younger voters on issues, consequences
A variety of organizations and campaigns say they amped up their mobilization efforts with younger voters for the midterms.
Conservation Voters New Mexico Communications Director Liliana Castillo says CVNM conducted more intentional outreach through its social media channels to reach younger voters.
"Young people definitely represent, literally, the next generation of leaders across the board," Castillo says. "Traditionally, the conservation base has been older, so we are making sure we're bringing in the next generation of voters."
This election season, Castillo says, "we've had a lot more two-way communication with younger people about, [for example,] the land commissioner race, where most people, even voters who have been voting for decades, don't understand what the land commissioner does or the big impact that position holds."
Julia Abbiss, 24, volunteered during the campaign for CVNM's phone bank for Democrat State Commissioner of Public Lands candidate Stephanie Garcia Richard. Abbiss voted early in the midterm. She was first eligible to vote for President Obama's second term in 2012, and has voted since then.
"This election I was particularly focused on supporting candidates with a track record of advocating for environmental sustainability, women's issues and gun control, and that was particularly because of the many threats posed at each of those on the national level," Abbiss says. "Having been able to vote and grow up in the Obama era, it's such a stark difference; a lot of millennials are particularly alarmed and disappointed and, honestly, angry."
Educating and activating that millennial vote has been a focus for Kate Kennedy, 31, president of the Young Democrats of Santa Fe County, a constituency she says ranges in age from 18 to 36. Moreover, in 2016, New Mexico changed the law to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 by the general election. This shift, Kennedy says, "allowed us to target high school seniors … which opened up a ton of doors for us."
She and Vice President Nathan Rubinfeld, who were both elected into their roles in August 2017, have been steadily meeting with younger voters at schools, community and neighborhood events, basically "anywhere where young people were gathering and interested," taking their feedback and communicating it to the Democratic Party (Kennedy and Rubinfeld both also serve as delegates at the state level).
Kennedy says the top issues of concern she's heard from younger voters include immigration, marijuana legalization and the environment. Most of the younger generation are connected to the immigration issue through either their own status or that of their family or friends, she says.
Similarly, as it relates to marijuana legalization, they want to reform the system because "they have seen friends and family members be removed from their families for marijuana-related offenses."
"They just seem really engaged," Kennedy says. "They feel the urgency we do; they also feel this is an opportunity for them to be heard."
Gabriel Sanchez, a principal at Latino Decisions, an Albuquerque-based political opinion research firm and an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, notes that prior to Trump's election, younger voters did not necessarily see voting as "the most effective way of crafting social change."
The "million-dollar question" for researchers such as himself, he says, is "given that most … millennials can see the consequence" of Trump's election, "will they engage in the voting process?" For minority groups such as Latinos and African Americans, he says, it's important to note that "by definition, we're talking about a young electorate," as a little more than half of the people who are voter-eligible in those demographics are millennials.
Immigration hits home, he says, with more than 50 percent of Hispanic voters having a personal connection to the issue. "Given what's happened with DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and the Trump administration's messaging, which has been so extreme," millennials don't see immigration just as a policy issue. "For young voters, it really is a personal issue for them."
Millennials didn’t surge in early voting, but turnout and other demographics matter
Early voting numbers heading into the midterms did not paint a clear picture of what type of turnout might be expected from younger voters. Figures provided to SFR by the Santa Fe County Clerk's office show that of the 44,262 early voters in Santa Fe County, 3,753—0.8 percent—were between the ages of 18 and 34. However, looking at just 18-year-olds, the clerk's office reports 899 eligible voters, of which 175 have voted early: close to 19.5 percent.
At the state level, numbers also appeared inconclusive. The Democratic Party shared figures it was analyzing of early and absentee voters from the Secretary of State's Office comparing age by history of voting in the last three general elections. This showed that while most midterm voters who hadn't previously participated were young, there were voters throughout the various age brackets. As for voters with no history of voting in the state, again, young voters were the largest group, but there were new-to-New Mexico voters in all age groups.
In other words, a young surge might be coming today in New Mexico—or maybe not.
On election eve, Democrat Speaker of the House Brian Egolf says his party is "operating on the idea that [overall] turnout is going to be in the neighborhood of 650,000, which means about 66 percent of the vote is in," but, he noted, "the get-out-the-vote operation that's underway is unprecedented by orders of magnitude," so "there's literally no way to know what's going to happen tomorrow."
What is clear, however, is that campaigns have prioritized not just the youth vote, but have broadened their reach within that group as well. For example, Kennedy's Young Democrats organization has "been working closely with our tribal partners on Native land increasing tribal voter registration." Outside of Santa Fe, Democrat and Laguna Pueblo member Deb Haaland's campaign for congress in the state's 1st District has been a draw for young Native voters.
DeChellie Gray, 23, began on Haaland's campaign as an intern and is now a staff member. A student at the University of New Mexico, Gray, who is Navajo, says she got involved because "I've just been interested in helping elect the first Native American woman to Congress."
Gray says she's seen the campaigns this year using social media and other outreach to connect with younger voters, and she thinks it's worked. "It's very exciting," she says. "For young people, and especially young Native people, this is a very historic event. I think we're all fired up by Standing Rock and the 2016 election, and we want change."
And whether it's the recent confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh or the attack on immigrants, current events are striking hard at young voters.
"Millennials are a generation of educated and engaged and diverse individuals," Abbiss says. "[We] really won't stand for the injustices that we see and are alerted to on a daily basis. We're motivated and we're ready to mobilize."
Voters can cast ballots in Santa Fe County at any of the Voting Convenience Centers which close tonight at 7 pm.