TALLAHASSEE — A generation more familiar with TikTok, Instagram and Xbox has the potential to make the difference in Florida’s toss-up presidential race between two seventy-somethings.
Younger voters this year have been registering and casting ballots in bigger numbers than previous years and, if the presidential race in Florida is as close as polls predict, it will be decided by the margins.
There about 1.1 million additional new Florida voters between 18 and 34 in 2020 than there were in 2016, according to state data provided to the political parties and reviewed by TargetSmart, a Democratic political data and analytics firm.
New data says many of those voters are showing up to vote. According to an analysis by Catalist, a progressive polling organization that is monitoring Florida’s voting trends among a slightly broader age group, ages 18 to 39, turnout has increased 44% among those voters compared to 2016.
"All signs point to this being a record turnout,'' said Michael Frias, CEO of Catalist, referring to both young voters and the general population.
Young voters traditionally are the least likely group to vote. They don’t think politics affects their lives. They aren’t accustomed to navigating the hurdles to registering and voting. They are less established in the workforce compared to older Americans and their lower income levels and education gaps make them less inclined to get involved in the political process.
And this year, the pandemic has scattered them, even from college campuses that have been magnets for political activity in election years.
But Frias says he sees a shift in energy this year, and higher young voter turnout could make a difference in a tight race for president in Florida, or down the ballot in narrow matches for Congress, the state legislature or local government races.
"Young people with and without college degrees seem to be similarly animated to go vote,'' he said.
Both parties see surge
Jessica Fernandez, president of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans, sees it.
“The support for this president and his reelection is historic,” said Fernandez, 35, whose husband is president of the Miami Young Republicans. “I have never seen the level of enthusiasm since I have been working on campaigns since 2007.”
Justin T. Atkins, 33, also sees it. He is state director of NextGen Florida, the left-leaning political committee created and funded by California billionaire and former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer that is focused on the youth vote.
"Young people are more galvanized this election than they’ve ever been,'' Atkins said. The pandemic’s impact on the job market, rising student debt and the nation’s racial reckoning have led more young people “to find their voices and realize that the first step to rectify these issues is the ballot box.”
The racial composition of young Floridians who are voting early also has shifted since 2016. Four years ago, 38.5% of the votes cast by young voters, with two weeks to go to the election, came from non-white young voters. This year, the percentage of non-white young voters ages 18-39 who had cast ballots was up to 54% as of Thursday, Frias said. More than three fourths of them are Democrats.
South Florida has the largest contingent of young voters, with nearly 1 million registered voters age 18-35 in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. The Tampa Bay area of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties is next highest with half a million young voters.
Nationally, the Institute of Politics Harvard Youth poll shows that young voter across the country have a higher level of enthusiasm than they did four years ago.
Younger Florida voters have followed the national and state trend and requested an unprecedented number of mail ballots this year — 800,000 in 2020, compared to 471,000 four years ago, according to an analysis of state data by TargetSmart.
But historically many young voters do not return their ballots, or they make mistakes on them when they do.
Victoria Reyes, 22, of Aventura understands how her generation under performs. She was 18 in 2016 and did not vote because she was a Florida State University student studying abroad in Florence and struggled with getting a ballot.
Now, she runs canvassing operations for the Florida Democratic Party in two Miami-based House districts and is focused on making sure people don’t neglect their vote.
"I have friends who in theory care, but don’t care enough to be invested in the news,'' she said. She cites her twin brother as an example.
"I make him vote. But he can’t name the Florida senators,'' she said. “He literally is my twin brother. He lives with me and I do this every day and he absolutely could not care. He’s progressively apolitical.”
Who will these voters help the most? Of the 3.5 million voters age 18 to 35 in Florida, 1.3 million are Democrats, 1.2 million are registered with no party affiliation and 910,000 are Republicans.
Two Florida-only polls released Oct. 20 show Biden with a narrow margin in Florida but with a comfortable lead among younger age groups. A University of North Florida poll had Florida voters ages 18-24 giving Biden a 29-point advantage and those ages 25-34 giving Biden a 23-point advantage. A CNN poll combined younger and middle-aged Florida voters, ages 18-49, and that gave Biden only a four-point advantage.
But both Republicans and Democrats are claiming to have the edge among Florida’s younger voters.
Since the beginning of the year, Fernandez of the Federation of Young Republicans and her team have worked to contact an estimated 1.7 million voters through phone calls, door knocking or text messages, she said. They have hosted 40 candidate forums and 20 media training events all aimed at getting people to the polls.
She points to Federico Arango, 30, a Miami musician and filmmaker, who is a registered Democrat but is voting for Trump — primarily because of the president’s support for[Space Force. It’s the sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Services,] establishing a sixth branch of the military, the Space Force.
"All of us young voters that grew up watching Star Wars, Star Trek and sci-fi fantasy, we saw the Mars Rover land on Mars and we always dreamed what it would be like to have a greater presence in space that is not just exploratory,'' Arango said Thursday, in between Trump-related campaign events in Miami.
He doesn’t trust Biden to pursue the dream and is so enthusiastic about a Space Force that he and his brother have composed and produced an anthem for the organization, which is currently housed in the Air Force.
Fernandez said her organization has just under 600 members and the top priorities are the economy and getting people back to work.
"In the last four years young people have been able to see big gains financially,'' she said.
Now, the pandemic has put many of their goals on hold. "The fear-mongering over the coronavirus really upset them,'' she said. “Not that they wanted to risk the health of themselves or others but they felt there was a need for a middle ground.”
Harvard’s IOP poll showed that while 60% of young voters say they support Biden, compared to 27% for Trump, the president’s supporters are more enthusiastic about voting for him than Biden supporters are in voting for the Democrat.
"Young voters are not naive,'' said Atkins of NextGen. “They know Joe Biden is not the most progressive candidate but what they are seeing is that he is going the table with Bernie Sanders. He is going to the table with [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and they are seeing him talking about minimum wage, free public college, student debt and they see Joe Biden as a more of a candidate they can hold accountable to listen to them.”
First time mistakes
This will be the first presidential election for Florida’s youngest voters, more than 780,000 voters 18 to 22 years old, and research shows that young voters have a propensity to be slower to return mail ballots, and make more mistakes.
Dan Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida, has researched mail-in balloting in Florida and found that younger voters have their signatures missing or rejected or have their ballots come in late at three times the rate of other voters.
"A lot of people don’t know what a stamp is,'' said Atkins of NextGen Florida.
And younger voters often have their signature change from the time they registered when they were 18, Smith said.
"They are used to signing with their finger on a scratch pad at Publix, but they don’t realize they are using the signature you used when they registered to vote,'' he said.
NextGen has joined with America Votes and other groups to follow up on rejected ballots and receive daily reports from supervisors of elections, Atkins said.
They attempt to reach voters, by phone or by text, and gauge whether they have been properly informed by the supervisors if their ballot was rejected and then walk them through the “curing” process to file an affidavit to have their vote count, said Abel Iraola, press secretary for NextGen Florida.
NextGen, the NAACP and FPIRG also have mounted an aggressive effort to get young voters to vote early and have watched a steady increase in tracking polls that register how determined young voters are to vote.
"We know that Florida is a 1% state,'' Atkins said, referring to the state’s traditionally tight margins in elections. “Our goal is to really drive out a lot of those low turnout voters.”
Among their targets: keeping an estimated 600,000 active young voters across Florida engaged and reaching another 500,000 “low propensity” voters, particularly young Black and Latinx voters, he said.
The organization has launched a $2.6 million digital ad campaign, with ads in English and Spanish running on platforms that young people use, such as Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Hulu and Vevo, specifically targeting young Latinx voters and young Black voters and takes credit for registering almost 22,000 new voters.
Students from more than a dozen progressive groups have also organized an 11-day ground mobilization effort targeting turnout among young people and communities of color. The group includes dozens of advocacy organizations and will highlight early vote events around the country, including Miami.
Both Republicans and Democrats say they want to capitalize on their midterm momentum by targeting close congressional and state legislative races.
Atkins, of NextGen, said the group’s goal is get enough young voters to cast ballots to give Democrat U.S. Rep. Debbie Murcusel Powell an advantage over Republican Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in the District 26 congressional race. They are also focused on the state senate races in Miami and Orlando and several close state House races, Atkins said.
And Fernandez, of the Florida Young Republicans group, has hosted events aimed at boosting Republican candidates across the state.
"We’re also advocating for all the Republicans up and down the ticket,'' she said. “We have to have a deep bench.”
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
VOTER GUIDE: Access the Tampa Bay Times’ Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.
HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on early voting locations, rules for voting by mail and more.
FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.
WHY A FLORIDA CITY’S BLACK VOTERS BEAT NATIONAL AVERAGES: Turnout is 10 percent over the national average. That’s been true for generations. The story of Chester James Sr. helps explain why.
POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?
SIGN UP FOR ELECTION TEXT MESSAGES: Get voting information, news updates and ask political editor Steve Contorno questions about the candidates and issues, directly through your phone.
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription. Or click here to make a donation to the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund.