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Who accounted for the high Florida primary turnout? This group may be part of the answer

Davis Hogg helps register voters in Tallahassee. Students and supporters from the March For Our Lives movement gathered as the Road to Change bus tours, both national and state, meet in Tallahassee for a rally to gather support and register voters.
Davis Hogg helps register voters in Tallahassee. Students and supporters from the March For Our Lives movement gathered as the Road to Change bus tours, both national and state, meet in Tallahassee for a rally to gather support and register voters. South Florida Sun Sentinel

It’s too soon to know for sure with precision which demographics went to the polls Tuesday, accounting for a turnout never before seen in Florida’s midterm primaries. But one demographic with historically low turnout may have helped push participation: youths.

According to NextGen America, a political action committee created by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, a fierce critic of President Donald Trump, voter turnout in college-area precincts jumped on Tuesday, based on preliminary turnout numbers. Turnout was nearly 10 percent higher in Alachua County, where the University of Florida is located, and youth-heavy precincts in Tallahassee saw five times more votes cast than in the 2014 primary, according to the organization, no doubt fueled in part by the candidacy of Tallahassee-based Andrew Gillum.

Precincts near Florida Memorial University also saw increased turnout.

The progressive group backed Gillum, surprise winner of the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and registered more than 19,000 youth voters between the ages of 18 and 35 to vote ahead of the primary, said Ben Wessel, the youth vote director for NextGen. He cited higher youth turnout as helping push Gillum over the top. When young people show up, progressive policies turn out, ” Wessel said.

Gillum,39, has always made his relative youth part of his political brand. He was first elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at age 23. His Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis, is also 39.

Youth voter registration was energized following the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. An analysis by TargetSmart, a data firm that works on behalf of Democrats, found that voters between the ages of 18 and 29 made up 26.23 percent of all new voter registrations in Florida in the two and a half months before the shooting. In the two and a half months after, that number rose to 34.22 percent. Although youth registration rose similarly ahead of the 2014 primary, turnout did not.

The rise in interest may be in part due to voter mobilization efforts by groups like NextGen and the March for Our Lives campaign, which launched a youth voter registration initiative, the Road to Change, this past summer, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

Voter turnout in the six Parkland precincts rose substantially in the primary. Among registered Democrats, turnout was 42.5 percent in the governor’s race, up from 16 percent in the 2014 primary, which was won by former Gov. Charlie Crist in a much less competitive race. Among registered Republicans in Parkland precincts, turnout this year was 33 percent in the governor’s race, up from 10 percent in the 2014 primary, which was a formality with Rick Scott running for reelection.

“There’s a lot to say about how young people can feel a sense of solidarity and hope in seeing young people like themselves make a change,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

But she said other factors may be at play, including increased focus on civic engagement programs at the college and high school levels.

Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said he’s waiting for the state to release the next voter file to find out with more precision which groups voted. Though turnout surged across the state, he’s skeptical of whether youth mobilization was a primary reason.

“Probably younger people did turn out more, but so did older people,” he said. “There’s some mobilization going on, but clearly Republicans also drove turnout.”

Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg announced Thursday that dozens of U.S. mayors — including a handful in South Florida — would pledge to make voting registration forms readily available to high school and college students next month.

The Mayors for Our Lives voter registration effort will coincide with the Sept. 25 National Voter Registration Day.

City leaders from Parkland to Los Angeles have agreed to dedicate resources to a community-wide voter registration day on high school and college campuses.

“It’s a push toward the general,” said Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky. “The more people who are involved in the process, the better it is for democracy.”

The final day to register to vote in the general is Oct. 9.

As for Wessel, he expects to see the youth turnout be a major factor in the general election. Last month, a federal judge struck down Florida’s ban on early voting locations on college campuses, paving the way for counties to offer on-campus early voting locations in the general election.

“If Gainesville turnout [in Alachua County] is already up, imagine what it will be like when you can roll out of bed and vote on your way to the dining hall,” he said. “I do think this is the start of a new trend.”

Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.

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