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Can guns and Trump turn out Florida’s youth vote? So far, not so much.

Voter registration among young Floridians is down or flat in most large counties
Nextgen Florida volunteer Casey Bauer registers University of Tampa student Amanda Schreiber, 20, right, in Plant Hall Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Nextgen Florida organized a day of action where they handed out voting and environmental information to students. JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Published Apr. 18, 2018
Updated Apr. 18, 2018

TAMPA ­— University of Tampa junior Casey Bauer believes this is the year that his peers will make a difference at the polls.

But just last week he struggled for the attention of fellow college students during a registration drive, even with his offer of bacon-sprinkled mini-donuts.

“Sorry, I’m carb free,” a University of Tampa student said as she hustled by Bauer, also a field organizer for the progressive NextGen America.

Gun violence and a polarizing president may have spurred more activism among millenials and in the subsequent Generation Z. But so far it isn’t generating new voters in Florida.

Across six of the seven largest counties, there were 4,500 fewer registrations among 16- to 25-year-olds compared to the same point in 2014. The largest county, Miami-Dade, could not provide historical data for registrations.

The numbers counter a popular narrative since February’s deadly massacre in Parkland that asserted there was an awakening among teens and young adults. This theory was bolstered by local and national rallies on gun violence, orchestrated high school walkouts, and an unusual number of young candidates who filed to run.

Yet even in Broward County — where 17 high school students, teachers and staff died in a February shooting that sparked a national movement to stop gun violence — there are fewer new registrations.

About 6,300 16- to 25-year-olds in Broward signed up to vote since the start of the new year, 2,700 less than during the same period in 2014.

Pre-registration among Jacksonville high schoolers in Duval County has fallen 90 percent. Officials there said an “aggressive” student voter registration drive in 2014 that so far hasn’t been replicated.

In Alachua and Leon counties, home to the University of Florida and Florida State University, respectively, new registrations among college-age students have dipped as well.

Political organizations and campaigns, especially progressive ones, are betting activism produced by Parkland will translate to more votes when Floridians choose their next governor and U.S. Senator.

But so far at least, the groups haven’t harnessed that energy with get-out-the-vote efforts because it’s early in the campaign cycle, said Democratic consultant Reggie Cardozo. A looming obstacle: young voters remain difficult to mobilize. In 2014, turnout for voters under 30 was the lowest for any modern mid-term.

“It has always been a challenge to grasp their attention,” said Cardozo, who headed President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign in Florida. “What would be good for us, and a realistic expectation, is to do a little better than we did in similar off-cycle years.”

Take the Tampa Bay area, one of the state’s most populous regions. Voter registration among people 25 and under is up about 1,400 from four years ago, but this makes up about the same share of overall new registrations as in 2014.

“What we’re seeing is business as usual,” said Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said the numbers didn’t mesh with what he witnessed at a voter registration drive: Students filling out paperwork on walls because they ran out of table space.

Students at a Pasco County high school register to vote during a recent registration drive. They ran out of table space and had to fill out the forms on the wall. Courtesy of Pasco County Supervisor of Elections.

“There is a palpable feeling of civic engagement with students who have relayed admiration of the (Marjory Stoneman Douglas) students and how they impacted public policy,” Corley said.

Only in Miami-Dade is there a sign that Parkland has made a dramatic difference. New registrations jumped from 3,100 in January to 6,700 in March, and young voters made up 60 percent of that spurt. That includes 2,125 pre-registrations by 16- and 17-year olds in March, a 10-fold increase from the beginning of the year.

Spokeswoman Suzy Trutie credited the spike to “high school students who participated in walk outs and registered to vote in March 2018.”

Tens of thousands of students across Tampa Bay participated in walkouts to stop gun violence, but there hasn’t been the same sense of urgency to sign up to vote, said Ione Townsend, executive director of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.

“It’s been a little frustrating,” Townsend said. “It’s in our home state and the level of passion and intensity is nowhere near the same on the west coast of Florida.”

There are signs this could change in the months leading up to the election. About 37 percent of Americans under 30 plan to vote in 2018, up from 23 percent who said the same in 2014, according to a nationwide March survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics survey.

There is also increasing discontent with the direction of the country under President Donald Trump, who is widely unpopular with young people. Three-in-four 18- to 29-year-olds disapprove of Trump.

Ryan Johnson, a University of Tampa student from central Illinois said the president’s behavior and executive actions have sparked much more dialogue and interest in national politics in the classroom and on social media, especially among those who “strongly agree or disagree with him.”

“Awareness is so much more prevalent and so you see it everywhere,” Johnson said.

But young people are also skeptical of American institutions. Just 21 percent trust the federal government to do the right thing. The popularity of Wall Street, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department and the media are all underwater.

While twice as many identify as Democrats than Republican, nearly as many belong to no party.

NextGen America is trying to counter the distrust with a prolonged presence on the ground. The group founded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer started organizing in Florida last summer and will spend $3.5 million through the election season. Last week they held 14 voter registration events across the state and 200 nationwide.

A coalition of left-leaning groups headed by Planned Parenthood announced plans Monday to spend $30 million — half in Florida — trying to get young people and other infrequent voters to show up in November.

“We’re seven months out and we’re seeing this energy. And that’s not something we’ve seen before,” said NextGen spokeswoman Olivia Bercow. “So being on the ground and starting those conversations about the issues that they care about and meeting them where they are, that’s something that’s crucially important.”