Parkland Survivors Launch Tour To Register Young Voters And Get Them Out In November

Jun 16, 2018

Three months ago the students from South Florida established themselves as a potent force in the gun debate with the March For Our Lives rally. This summer they're hitting the road with a new mission: turn the wave of young activism they helped spark into an energized voting bloc for the November mid-term elections.

At the annual end-of-year peace march in Chicago, organized by St. Sabina Catholic Church, Grammy-winners Chance the Rapper and Jennifer Hudson, along with former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, joined the Parkland survivors to launch a bus tour called Road to Change.

It's a voter mobilization effort aimed at getting young people registered and keeping them energized through the summer.

A nationwide tour will make 50-plus stops in more than 20 states, including Iowa, Texas, South Carolina and Connecticut. The will also be a Florida tour stopping in all 27 of the state's Congressional districts.

"The main purpose of this tour is not just to educate people on gun violence and what we can do to prevent gun violence, but is also to register more people to vote," says Matt Deitsch, chief strategist for March For Our Lives.

The movement will not be endorsing any candidates on the tour. Organizers plan to stop in places that have been affected by gun violence and also areas where there is a strong pro-gun culture.

Andy Bernstein heads the national non-profit HeadCount which partners with recording artists like Jay-Z, Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band to register voters at music concerts.

"I really think that the Parkland students have done something remarkable. They have made voter registration cool," Bernstein says.

"I don't think even the most popular musician in the world can do that on their own and the Parkland kids did."

Headcount registered voters at the March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. in March and will do the same on the bus tour.

But, by in large, young voters do not tend to show up to the polls in mid-term elections.

According to the Census Bureau in the last midterm cycle in 2014, only 23 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds voted. When narrowed to 18 to 24, that fell to just under 16 percent.

There are signs the anti-gun violence movement is having an impact on potential young voters, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg who is the Director of Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.

Crunching available voter registration numbers through June 13, she and fellow researchers discovered there is evidence of young registrants getting more engaged in the political process.

"What we did find was that in a lot of states the youth registration numbers actually exceeded the numbers from the November of 2016," Kawashima-Ginsberg says. "And that's really significant because young people mostly register to vote in September and October of the election year."

A Harvard University poll released in April showed that 77 percent of 18 to 29-year-old likely voters said that gun control is an important issue for them in the 2018 elections.

Republican strategist Doug Heye praises how the Parkland activists have been able to sustain the gun discussion for this long, but says that the mid-term elections are still five months away. The test, he says, is whether these young activists can exceed the voting intensity of second amendment right supporters.

"If you are a single issue voter and guns is the issue, what we've seen in the past is that it's the pro-second amendment, pro-gun voter that is almost guaranteed to show up at the polls."

Matt Deitsch, the March For Our Lives chief strategist, says he is up for the challenge.

"We're making voting something that is not just checking a box. It's literally you being a hero and you saving lives," Deitsch says. "That's why we have to do this."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The student survivors turned activists from Parkland, Fla., hit the road this summer. They'll make 50-plus stops in more than 20 states in their mission to try to turn the gun control wave they sparked in the spring into an energized voting block for midterm elections. The tour kicked off last night in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If we don't get it...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If we don't get it...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If we don't get it...

SIMON: But turnout is typically low in midterm elections, especially for young people. NPR's Brakkton Booker explains whether there are signs of change this year.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: The tour is called Road to Change. Twenty-year-old Matt Deitsch is the chief strategist for March For Our Lives.

MATT DEITSCH: The main point of this tour is not just to educate people on gun violence and what we can do to prevent gun violence, but it is to register more people to vote.

BOOKER: In the time since 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, young people have become a potent force in the gun debate. They've warned federal lawmakers enact stricter gun laws or be voted out. After three months of marches and rallies, not much has changed on the national level. Now, the tactic is mobilizing new, young voters.

DEITSCH: For the most part, we're making voting cool.

BOOKER: The hope is to rev up those potential voters through a pair of bus tours, one solely focused on Florida, another that will crisscross the nation. Organizers say that along the way they will visit places with frequent gun violence, as well as meet with pro-gun rights groups. The main focus, though, is turning out the vote. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg studies political and civic engagement of young Americans at Tufts University.

KEI KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: You know, young people generally vote at a pretty low rate in midterm years as compared to the presidential years.

BOOKER: It was paltry for the 2014 midterms - around 16 percent for 18 to 24-year-olds, according to the Census Bureau. I asked Kawashima-Ginsberg, is there any evidence things could be different in 2018?

KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: And what we did find was that in a lot of states, the youth registration numbers have actually exceeded the numbers from the November of 2016. And that's really significant because young people mostly registered to vote for the first time in September and October of the election year.

BOOKER: She points to blue states like California and deep-red Alabama as places that have seen increases in youth voter registration. Doug Heye is a GOP strategist and says there is still a long time before the November elections.

DOUG HEYE: Maintaining voter interest and also maintaining a presence over a long-term period - we're talking about another five months - is hard to do for any kind of movement.

BOOKER: He praises how the Parkland activists have been able to sustain the gun discussion for so long. But the real test is whether they can match the voting intensity by those who are for gun rights.

HEYE: Most voters aren't necessarily single-issue voters, but if you are a single-issue voter and guns is the issue, what we've seen in the past is that it's the pro-Second Amendment, pro-gun voter that really is almost guaranteed to show up at the polls.

BOOKER: Matt Deitsch, the chief strategist for March For Our Lives, is up for the challenge because he says lives are at stake.

DEITSCH: We're making voting something that isn't just checking a box. It's literally you being a hero and you saving lives, and that's what we have to do with this.

BOOKER: The Road to Change is in Chicago the rest of the day, before pulling into St. Louis tomorrow. Brakkton Booker, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.