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Only a fool predicts election results, but it is safe to bet that in a city that is overwhelmingly young, the elders will determine the election outcome.
In the initial May 6 ballot, fewer than one in 10 voters were under age 34, though they represent more than a third of San Antonio’s voting age population, according to data crunched by Texas Public Radio. On the other end of the age spectrum, seniors aged 65 and older represented 45% of the vote, though they are just 17% of San Antonio’s voting age population. Early vote for the runoff shows a similar pattern.
That shocking disparity aside, rumblings suggest that, in a time of increased political anxiety and toxicity, youth voices may be starting to murmur, if not yet roar. As low as the numbers are, they represent a tripling of the youth percentage of the electorate from just two years ago when it was just 3%, according to an analysis by MOVE San Antonio, a group created to mobilize the youth vote locally and stands for Mobilize, Organize, Vote, Empower.
Lupita Garcia, 22, was part of that tally, voting for the very first time in the May city election. The spark? Someone standing in front of her and breaking down the local election and how it affected her. After a presentation by SA2020 CEO Molly Cox, organized by her public affairs professor and MOVE SA, she joined a group of students who walked across the campus to cast their ballots together.
“It was a really great motivation. You don’t really see many young adults participating in elections – so when you see that happening, it’s really incredible,” said Garcia, describing an almost festive air in the voting booth for the May municipal election.
Whereas television and social media makes national news unavoidable these days, it is much harder for young people to feel informed about City Council, mayoral and bond elections, said Jay’Len Boone, a student organizer at University of Texas at San Antonio. By comparison, close to 20% of voters in the last two presidential elections were ages 18-29, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which studies youth voting trends.
“Our generation is now the same size as the baby boomers but we are cutting ourselves off at the knees at the voting booth,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE SA. “Are the numbers getting better, yes, but incrementally. We see the weight of systematic barriers.”
Boone credits his engagement to growing up in Houston with a family that celebrated overcoming Jim Crow segregation, and shared a steady diet of conversation about politics at all levels.
Absent that, Boone said, the schools – beginning at least in high school and through college – must support young people as they become active citizens and voters. Both he and Garcia agree, that is not happening today in Texas in any systematic way.
As part of SA2020, the community set a goal of increasing municipal voter turnout, among the lowest of any city in the country. This election cycle, the nonprofit, nonpartisan group launched a website ilovesanantonio.org which offers user-friendly voting facts, including early voting sites, council districts, and more. The majority of users relied on mobile devices, and nearly 50% were under age 34, web analytics show. Only 5% of the users were over 65.
“Millennials don’t want to be told, ‘go support this person,’” Galloway said. “They want to be told, ‘this is why this issue matters to young people.’”
Jose Flores, 26, agrees, and has found success with friends his age tapping into downtown, an issue important to both Millennials and locals. It’s especially true for those who grew up here, because for many years San Antonio treated its downtown as just for tourists, he said.
Flores began taking an interest in local politics after college when he started Scooter Power Tours, seeking to provide a more authentic alternative than the traditional River Walk-oriented tourist experience. “It’s to my benefit to learn who is calling the shots,” explained Flores, a Burbank High School graduate who studied architecture in Chicago.
He’s also heartened by the heightened online presence of MOVE SA. Galloway agrees, but adds that its hard to convince a technological generation they should have to travel and stand in line to vote.
Formed in 2013 by UTSA students, MOVE SA spread across local colleges. Organizers registered 1,034 young people in 2017, recorded the issues that matter to them, kept in touch with them about opportunities to express their views, and then reminded them to vote, Galloway said. Of those they kept in touch with, 63% actually voted, he said, recognition that voting is only part of a campaign around a healthy civic life.
SA2020 and MOVE SA presented local election information to about 1,300 public affairs students. Of the 530 students surveyed afterwards, 429 said they were “super likely to vote,” in the May election, up from 244 prior to the presentations.
Cox voiced encouragement, but also frustration for local colleges for failing to build civic engagement into their culture.
“What is the responsibility of the higher education institution to make that a priority in teaching?” she asked, adding later, “How about if we make it like Fiesta and call it a holiday?”
MOVE SA has also experimented with a number of what Boone calls “guinea pig” actions to see what might connect with youth. Efforts include voter registration, voting pledges, Facebook events, forums on Fake News, texting, phone calling, and presentations to college classes – to name but a few.
In April, MOVE held a “Saturday night live” candidate forum, targeting young people and urging mayoral and Council candidates to dress in character. Like that, she said, political events should bring in music, entertainment, and fun.
Garcia said she’s seen a recent uptick in political interest from her friends. Some find increasing partisanship a turnoff, she said, but strong emotions also energize them. “I honestly feel like what is attracting people to vote is anger,” she said.
Boone takes heart from the state of Oregon, which, partly in response to youth activism, has made voting easier, and has seen Millennial participation rise. Engaging young people, in his view, will only come from a mix of school support, better policies, and organizing.
“If I could wave a magic wand, I would make it like Oregon is right now. There would be no registration, you could sign up online. This is what we’re promised as part of democracy. Voting has never been this hard before,” Boone said.
In addition to Oregon’s automatic voter registration, Galloway believes San Antonio could benefit by moving San Antonio election dates to November. Many young folks he’s connected to about the runoff, he said, have already left town for internships, jobs, or returning to visit family, and summer is absolutely the worst time to engage young people.
Research on voting indicates that it is habit forming, and once people become voters, they tend to remain voters.
“If I was going to ride a bike, if I only did it 20 minutes a year, it would take me how many years to learn?” he asked.
In Garcia’s case, it is unclear what it will take for the habit to stick. She was thrilled to vote for the first time, compelled as an outdoor lover by the city bond investment in parks. Then came finals, the end of school, and transitioning to summer. She won’t be voting Saturday, she said, because doing the research on the mayoral candidates would require additional time, something she just doesn’t have.