Youth engagement and the shifting Massachusetts political playing field.
Youth voting and civic engagement has significantly increased nationally this past year, a trend shown through the 2020 presidential election and the partial result of a rise in youth activism. And with the upcoming Boston mayoral election promising a diverse candidate pool, campaigns are already starting to reach out to some youth voters.
“Because of everything that happened last year with the murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people have woken up and a lot of people really wanted to get involved civically,” said Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager at MassVOTE.
The city of Boston will hold a mayoral election on Nov 2, preceded by a highly contested primary on Sept 21. It’s a race for a seat that has been occupied by Mayor Marty Walsh since 2014, and as Walsh prepares to leave for Washington to serve as labor secretary in the Biden-Harris administration, three women—Boston City Councilors Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell, and Annissa Essaibi-George—and Mass state Rep. Jon Santiago are already vying to fill the vacant seat. Considering the early field, it’s a race unlike any other Bostonians have seen.
Historically, local elections, especially those as local as a mayoral race, have struggled to attract new youth voters. A study done by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning, or CIRCLE, found that youth turnout in Boston during the 2015 off-year elections was under 2% compared to 15% for the age group of 30 or older.
One of the hurdles: Among the biggest challenges that college students face is the constant change of addresses, and only being in a community for a short amount of time.
“If you’re a young person living in a community for only a year or two years at a time, before you move to a new school and move to a new job, it’s hard to really forge your roots in the community or get access to the electoral information you need to participate in that community,” said Kristian Lundberg, an associate researcher at CIRCLE. “You have to register to vote, you have to register at a new address, you might forget to fill out a form.”
Organizations such as MassVOTE target college campuses in Mass during election months to educate and help youth get to polling stations, all in order to combat voting registration problems.
“We try to partner with as many colleges and universities across the state as we can, because that’s where a lot of the young people are,” Psilakis said. “There’s a lot of outreach to schools, and then once that outreach occurs, it’s voter registration drives, holding events where we answer questions, bring in speakers, and things like that.”
As the voter group that is the least likely to have permanent addresses among all the voting age groups, it also makes it hard for a lot of campaigns to reach younger voters. As a result, past campaigns have overlooked them, resulting in a lack of engagement from the campaign side as well as the voter side.
In recent years, campaign organizers have begun to utilize young adults and students by hiring them as fellows and having them mainly help with the outreach program. On top of social media platforms, youth organizers are going beyond phone banking to attract their demographic.
Lillian Gibson, a founder of Students for Wu, a group of high school and college students supporting the Wu mayoral campaign, spoke about “finding creative ways to get students involved, whether that’s the traditional phone banking or [giving] students the opportunities to be able to talk with [the candidate] and get to know her policy on a different level than just reading off the script.”
Campbell’s mayoral campaign is also appealing heavily to young people. The candidate’s background working with youth as a city councilor and council president, she says, has informed her approach. For her, the big focus lies in engaging those voters who are often overlooked and left out of the processes, such as communities of people of color and, of course, youth voters. In speaking about outreach, Campbell notes her history of growing up in Boston and the painful loss at a young age of her brother to the criminal justice system.
“For me, success in this race isn’t just winning; it’s doing so by engaging and mobilizing those who are often overlooked or left out of our electoral process: young people, immigrants, and lower-income residents, especially in our communities of color,” Campbell said.
Another tactic campaigns have found effective is relational outreach—connecting with those who you already have a connection with and getting them to support the candidate, instead of simply cold-calling via phone banking.
In an analysis of a poll of a few thousand 18- to 29-year-olds, CIRCLE found that the ways in which young people heard about the presidential election was mostly from family and friends, as well as some through social media.
“I think campaigns could do a lot of work to really elevate youth voices so that young people can reach out to other young people, and that’s a really encouraging and positive way to reach out to young people,” Lundberg said.
All of the campaigns seem to be headed down this path. Beyond the Students for Wu group, which was spearheaded by actual students, the Wu campaign themselves have been holding press conferences for student newspapers to provide the opportunity to ask questions and meet Wu herself.
“I know that young people, our student population in Boston, really can drive the change, have the ideas, have the leadership and ideas and energy and activism to really drive where our city should be headed in the future,” Wu said. “Those of us who are younger have the greatest stake in what’s to come and what our future looks like, so we really wanted to make sure that we are valuing and coming directly to [student press], as representatives to the larger student population.”
The past couple of years have generally seen younger generations immerse themselves more in civic engagement, advocacy movements, and voting. Locally, these trends were evident in two particular races for Mass congressional seats, namely Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s primary race in 2018, as well as the 2020 Senate race between incumbent Sen. Edward J. Markey and Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III.
“Last year, you saw young people get really really involved and get incredibly driven on both sides,” Psilakis of MassVOTE said about the senate race. “They really wanted to get involved, and you saw the candidates talking a lot about issues that are going to affect young people.”
As has been nationally noted, among the biggest appeals of Sen. Markey to Gen Z voters was the Green New Deal, which he proposed with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Policies addressing climate change have been front and center in elections nationally, and Boston is no different. So far, Campbell, Wu, and Essaibi-George have proposals out addressing climate change.
“Whoever is elected mayor of Boston is going to dramatically impact what the city looks like for the youngest people,” Psilakis said. “It’s going to impact them the longest.”