April 29, 2013

In the Land of Snowbirds, Reaching Out to the Youngest Voters

Each year, about 60 million people travel to the state of Florida, including one very special subset of visitors: “snowbirds.”

Florida-bound snowbirds are typically retirees from the northeast of the US who spend their winters in search of sunshine and warm weather. With no state income tax requirements, Florida also makes an attractive destination for formal residency, which means snowbirds can vote.

And vote they do.

Similar to older generations in most American states, Florida’s snowbirds are consistent and engaged voters. Turnout for the 2012 presidential election in Martin County, Florida–where Reboot’s elections research team traveled last week–was 78 percent.  Snowbirds like their ballots as much as they do their beaches, apparently.

But for all the influence snowbirds have on local elections here, the most interesting tidbit we learned from the Martin County Supervisor of Elections had nothing to do with snowbirds at all–and everything to do with young voters.

In Florida, 16 year-olds can “pre-register” to vote when they apply for a driver’s license.  Once they turn 18, they are automatically registered to vote with no further paperwork required.  They are also eligible to become poll workers during the interim period, even if they are not yet able to cast a vote. Martin County’s Supervisor Vicki Davis, and her team of elections administrators, takes advantage of this nicely designed quasi-“nudge” in state law.  After a week with her team, we learned just how much this office has invested in future generations of citizens.

Alongside a voter registration drive for those students who were eligible to vote in the 2012 general elections–which resulted in 800 new voters–the elections team launched a “Pledge to Vote” competition among the county’s high schools. The idea came from the office’s Student Advisory Board, which realized it could use the increased awareness of the elections to encourage underage youth to make a “pledge” that they would vote upon becoming eligible.  Schools that generated the most commitments to vote won trophies from the office.

According to Kherri Anderson, the Deputy Supervisor of Elections Outreach, the students observed that, “you can’t make anybody register to vote; but if we pledge, that says we’ll get involved when we are old enough.”

Both young Democrat and young Republican groups at the schools were invited to share their party platforms with their peers, to simulate the political decision-making environment.  Students who volunteered their cell phone numbers received text messages from the elections office with reminders about registration.  On graduation day, inside their diploma covers, the graduates found a voter registration form and an absentee ballot–a not-so-subtle invitation from the Supervisor herself to become civically engaged.

Students were also invited to become pollworkers, which thrilled the crew of regulars, whose average age is 71.  Anderson received phone calls from her (yes, snowbird) pollworkers after the election day, raving about how the young people could set up polling sites much more quickly, and seemed nonplussed by the technological aspects of the voting equipment.  One local professor even offered all of his students a full test grade and 15 points on the final if they agreed to work the polls.

Our takeaway from Martin County this week was a strong reminder of how deep the connection is between the future of American elections and the future of youth civic engagement.  Even though the county experiences among the highest voter turnout rates in the country–thanks largely to the commitment of the snowbirds–Martin County Supervisor of Elections demonstrates a restless dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Vicki and her team say that their legacy in office is to “keep democracy going for the future.” They back up these words with investments in engaging the county’s young people.

Over the past few weeks, our research has revealed just how local our democratic processes are, different in substantial and important ways in each place we have visited.  What emerged anew this week seems refreshingly applicable across state lines: local government, no matter where it is, might find advantage in dislodging just a bit from the needs and habits of today’s more active voting demographics, and act more directly to ignite the civic spirit within tomorrow’s.

*    *    *

Say hello to us this week @theReboot in Denver, Colorado, if you live there!  We’re looking forward to spending some time with the City and County of Denver Elections Division for this, our final week research into the administration of elections in America!

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