The Voter Registration Drive That Could Reshape the 2018 Midterms

NextGen America is targeting liberal college students across America, and trying to keep them politically engaged long after Election Day.

If you recognize the name Tom Steyer, it’s likely because you’ve seen him on TV. Last year, the sixty-one year-old San Francisco billionaire spent $20 million on an ad campaign in which, speaking directly into the camera, he called for Donald Trump’s impeachment. He’s now the largest individual Democratic political donor, slated to spend $110 million on politics this year alone.

But if he has a lasting impact on American politics, it will likely be through a less high-profile but equally ambitious investment. Steyer is the founder of NextGen America, which claims to be the biggest youth vote program in history. NextGen’s goal is to register hundreds of thousands of new, young, left-leaning voters, and get them to the polls. If the effort is successful, it wouldn’t just help Democrats this November—it could be the key to sustained Democratic power.

By 2019, Pew predicts that Millennials will be largest group of eligible voters in the United States. Young adults skew liberal, and overwhelmingly, they don’t like Trump: he has a 72 percent disapproval rating among Americans ages eighteen to twenty-nine—a cohort that includes the post-Millennial generation—according to a recent Harvard poll. But they vote at low rates, especially in midterm elections. In 2010, only 24 percent of eligible voters under thirty went to the polls. In 2014, it was even worse: only 19.9 percent voted, a historic low. It’s a problem that progressive campaigns have thrown themselves at for years.

If Steyer can move the needle, it will be, in part, because NextGen is different from a traditional campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort in two important ways. The first is the combination of a lot of human power directed at a narrow target: college students in swing states. It means NextGen organizers can get more face time with the population they hope to turn out than most midterm campaigns can. The second is that, whereas campaigns understandably pack up and leave after Election Day, NextGen sticks around.

With a field staff of about 700 full-time organizers and part-time student fellows across eleven swing states, the organization hopes to register and turn out half a million new young voters this year. That would be a small dent in the roughly twenty million college and university students in the U.S. But in swing states, a few thousand more voters can change election outcomes: The 2016 presidential election was effectively decided by 80,000 votes spread across three states.

In Virginia, for example, NextGen has enough organizers to assign a full-time, paid organizer to most of the twenty colleges where they operate. Add in forty fellows and even more volunteers, and you have a small army of students at each campus getting in people’s faces about voting.

Take Terence Stovall and Travis Evans, recent graduates of George Mason University and freshly minted organizers for NextGen. Stovall is assigned to Northern Virginia Community College, and Evans will split his time between Virginia State University and Virginia Union University. They’ll be at those colleges most days, registering voters, hosting events, building partnerships with clubs, and becoming known faces on campus.

While registering students is a requisite step, it’s irrelevant if they don’t actually cast ballots. NextGen emphasizes face time and personal relationships as a way to make sure young people actually make it to the polls. “Remember, we’ve got an election coming up in a week, bro,” said Stovall, illustrating a typical interaction he might have with a student. “I registered you. Like, don’t waste that—go out there and exercise your right.” Political science research has found that face-to-face interactions, social pressure, and peer encouragement all make young people more likely to participate in the political process.

By primarily targeting college students, NextGen has chosen a population that skews even more progressive than young people more broadly; that includes a high percentage of unregistered voters; and, especially in the case of residential colleges, that is densely concentrated. The college setting presents moments of easy pickings for voter registration—move-in weekend at residential colleges and the first day of class at community colleges are a full-court press. (In 2017, the University of Virginia’s move-in landed just a week after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Organizers had hoped to register 178 new voters. Instead, they got 1,000 in forty-eight hours.)

The past decade or so has seen a wealth of research focusing on the effectiveness of GOTV techniques, and NextGen’s organizers are trained in the best practices. They make registering to vote as easy as possible for students, walking them through the form, line by line, and reciting the college’s address if the student doesn’t have it memorized. Stovall, who worked for NextGen as a fellow while a student, described his approach to registering students between classes: “You’re walking to the dining hall? Cool, I like looking at food, I’ll walk with you while you fill this out.” Young adults are also unlikely to pick up phone calls from numbers they don’t know, but they do read texts, so organizers send out texts reminding students what day the election is, where their nearest polling station is, and what time it closes. Research shows that someone who has a specific plan for when and how to vote on Election Day is more likely to, so organizers talk through students’ class schedules, helping them figure out when they’ll make their trip to the polls or mail in their absentee ballot.

After the election, when the media shifts its attention and campaign staffers disperse, NextGen stays put. Because college students aren’t interested in hearing why they should vote in November when it’s only January, organizers use the winter and spring to engage with students in other ways. They invest time in NextGen campus clubs, which turn into their volunteer base come the fall. They host events with other clubs on campus, where they register attendees. They train volunteers to become successful organizers. “These students are going to graduate, and they’re going to organize in 2020, or 2022, or 2024, and they are going to be the reason why Virginia continues to turn blue,” says Carter Black, the ebullient twenty-four year-old state youth director for NextGen’s Virginia operation.

The organization represents the type of strategic, long-term effort that the political right has employed to great effect. Think of the Federalist Society, an influential organization founded in the 1980s that has groomed generations of conservative lawyers and vets ideological true believers for the Supreme Court. Or the concentrated push, backed by conservative super PACs, to re-draw congressional district lines in 2011 in ways that all but locked in a Republican House majority. Or the American Legislative Exchange Council, which, since the 1970s, has partnered conservative state legislators with corporations to draft bills. Each long-term investment has paid dividends for conservative power. The left has fewer examples of successful, strategic, and centralized efforts to advance its agenda. But it has one advantage: liberal policies are already generally more popular with the public than the Republican agenda. The challenge for the left, whose ranks include millions of non-voting young people, is closing the gap between the public and the electorate.

Stovall and Evans are optimistic about the upcoming midterms. The organization has set the goal of registering twenty-six thousand new voters in Virginia, but Evans—who had been on the job all of ten days when I talked to him—thinks they can hit thirty. Evans and Stovall both know disappointment: They volunteered for the Clinton campaign when they were in college. But they haven’t become disillusioned. “This is so different from 2016,” said Evans. “We aren’t taking anything for granted. I will work for every single registration.”

Grace Gedye

Grace Gedye is an editorial intern at Washington Monthly. She is a graduate of Pomona College.