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Colorado’s young voters turned out in record numbers, largest in the state

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When 18-year-old Apshara Siwakoti cast her bal­lot on Nov. 3, she felt a sense of relief. Up until the day before, she didn’t think she could vote.

Siwakoti immi­grat­ed with her fam­i­ly to the Unit­ed States at the age of 8 after leav­ing a refugee camp in Nepal. She became a nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zen in 2018 when her moth­er obtained her cit­i­zen­ship.

But Siwakoti was still wait­ing for the paper­work, even though it had been approved. And she thought — and was incor­rect­ly informed — she would need it to vote. On Nov. 2, she received a phone call from a cam­paign telling her she was reg­is­tered.

“It felt real­ly, real­ly pow­er­ful,” Siwakoti said of vot­ing. “I felt like I belong here. I felt like I actu­al­ly have a home when I cast my bal­lot, so it was real­ly pow­er­ful for me.”

Colorado’s youth turned out to vote in record num­bers this year, and at one of the high­est rates in the coun­try. Nation­wide, young vot­ers — par­tic­u­lar­ly those of col­or — fueled Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden’s path to vic­to­ry, accord­ing to ear­ly research from Tufts University’s Cen­ter for Infor­ma­tion and Research on Civic Learn­ing and Engage­ment. Experts cred­it a vari­ety of fac­tors for the high lev­el of engage­ment, includ­ing tar­get­ed turnout efforts.

In Col­orado, vot­er turnout increased across the board this year, but the lev­el of enthu­si­asm was most appar­ent in younger vot­ers, said Robert Preuhs, a polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Met­ro­pol­i­tan State Uni­ver­si­ty.

“For the most part, what we saw is a rel­a­tive­ly ener­gized youth vote and the ben­e­fit of this is actu­al­ly going for­ward in that one of the key pre­dic­tors of vot­ing is whether you vot­ed in the past or whether folks have estab­lished a habit ear­ly on,” he said.

About 70% of reg­is­tered 18- to 34-year-old Col­oradans cast bal­lots in the 2020 elec­tion, a 9 per­cent­age point increase from 2016, when turnout was 61%, accord­ing to New Era Col­orado, the largest young vot­er reg­is­tra­tion orga­ni­za­tion in the state. The non­prof­it advo­cates for pro­gres­sive poli­cies.

Their share of the vote was 27% of all bal­lots cast, cement­ing them as the largest vot­ing bloc in the state, said Nicole Hensel, exec­u­tive direc­tor of New Era Col­orado.

Hensel wasn’t sur­prised. The state saw record youth turnout in 2018, and young peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly Black activists, led the police reform and racial jus­tice protests that sprang up in Col­orado and across the coun­try after George Floyd’s killing in May.

“Young peo­ple are not real­ly dri­ven by polit­i­cal par­ties or can­di­dates. They’re dri­ven by issues,” Hensel said.

Both Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can cam­paigns worked to engage younger vot­ers in Col­orado, par­tic­u­lar­ly on col­lege cam­pus­es, but only a third of vot­ers ages 18 to 29 cast bal­lots for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, accord­ing to Tufts’ data from Nov. 6.

Preuhs said some of the young vote that went to Biden was prob­a­bly car­ry­over from their excite­ment about Bernie Sanders.

And, as with oth­er demo­graph­ic groups, an urgency to vote against Trump affect­ed turnout, Preuhs not­ed. In 2016, youth and peo­ple of col­or did not turn out in the num­bers Democ­rats expect­ed, so they tried to make a more con­cert­ed effort to reach them in 2020.

Asian-Amer­i­can youth, in par­tic­u­lar, showed strong engage­ment this elec­tion, accord­ing to the Tufts data.

For Viet­namese Amer­i­can Chloe Nguyen, get­ting to vote in her first pres­i­den­tial elec­tion at 21 helped her feel like she was mak­ing her voice heard for her­self and her immi­grant par­ents.

“In 2016, it was hard being a bystander because I was just 17 on the brink of turn­ing 18,” the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver stu­dent said. “Watch­ing the results, I felt dis­ap­point­ed and I felt ter­ri­ble know­ing that I was only a few months away from my 18th birth­day and I couldn’t do any­thing.”

Vol­un­teers with the Col­orado Immi­grant Rights Coali­tion Action Fund talked to 186,000 vot­ers this elec­tion cycle and reached anoth­er 458,000 through dig­i­tal ads. They were most­ly young vot­ers of col­or.

“I knew that when I joined this cam­paign, I want­ed to do every­thing that I could to think about how are peo­ple reach­ing out to me and my peers and how can I work off of that and make this cam­paign more suc­cess­ful,” said 26-year-old Ian Pham, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and devel­op­ment man­ag­er.

Pham believes young peo­ple aren’t con­tact­ed enough, and there were a lot of issues that real­ly mat­tered to immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties on the line this year. Part of CIRC Action’s work is also about ensur­ing Colorado’s lead­ers bet­ter reflect the com­mu­ni­ties they serve.

“More and more peo­ple are see­ing how their vote is just one way to use their voice in this coun­try,” he said.

As oth­er groups were forced to do because of COVID-19, New Era Col­orado switched many of its efforts online. While that lim­it­ed vot­er out­reach, it helped groups meet Gen­er­a­tion Z and younger mil­len­ni­als where they were at: on social media.

The Col­orado Votes Act, passed by Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers last year, also added vot­ing cen­ters and drop box­es at every col­lege cam­pus, expand­ed vot­ing in pri­maries to 17-year-olds who would be 18 by the time of the gen­er­al elec­tion and increased vot­ing access on trib­al lands.

“We love to see record youth turnout and what we hope that trans­lates into is a man­date for cen­ter­ing a youth agen­da in the minds of our elect­ed offi­cials,” Hensel said.

But that work has to go beyond Elec­tion Day, orga­niz­ers say. Research shows that peo­ple who vote in the first three elec­tions they’re eli­gi­ble to vote in will like­ly vote for the rest of their lives.

“Vot­ing is some­thing that takes prac­tice in order for it to become habit,” Hensel said.

Eigh­teen of Colorado’s col­lege cam­pus­es have tak­en part in the ALL IN Cam­pus Democ­ra­cy Chal­lenge to encour­age that habit, join­ing more than 800 oth­ers across the coun­try. Metro State received an award in 2016 for hav­ing the high­est under­grad­u­ate stu­dent vot­ing rate: 65.3%. In 2018, the uni­ver­si­ty was rec­og­nized for hav­ing the high­est vot­ing rate among large four-year pub­lic insti­tu­tions: 65.9%.

Ryan Drys­dale, assis­tant direc­tor of the chal­lenge, cred­its the university’s work on vot­er engage­ment out­side of elec­tion sea­sons.

“The excite­ment we saw in 2018 and 2020 may dis­si­pate in the future,” Drys­dale said. “When that cur­rent events vari­able dimin­ish­es, the work cam­pus­es do year-round needs to be strong to make sure turnout remains high.”

Doing that is less chal­leng­ing in Col­orado, Drys­dale said, because it’s so easy to reg­is­ter and vote in the state. That also means advo­ca­cy groups can focus their efforts on edu­cat­ing vot­ers about the can­di­dates and the issues.

That’s the expe­ri­ence Mayra Valdez, a 22-year-old senior at MSU, had as she helped oth­ers reg­is­ter and learn about the elec­tion. She’s part of IGNITE, an orga­ni­za­tion that encour­ages women to become polit­i­cal­ly engaged.

Valdez, a DACA recip­i­ent, isn’t eli­gi­ble to vote her­self, but she made it her mis­sion to help oth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly vot­ers of col­or. Young peo­ple were moti­vat­ed this year, she said.

“I think they final­ly real­ized we have the pow­er to dic­tate the direc­tion this coun­try goes to,” she said.

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