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As young voter registration surges in Pa., both parties see opportunities

Written by Sam Ruland/The York Daily Record | Aug 6, 2018 10:17 AM
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FILE PHOTO: An organizer holds a voter registration clipboard as demonstrators gather during the March for Our Lives protest for gun legislation and school safety outside city hall, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(Undated) -- Shane Coolbaugh remembers the day he became a registered voter.  

The sun was shining and the feeling of liberation was in the air, Coolbaugh joked ... but actually that's not how he remembers it at all. 

As president of York County Young Democrats, he wishes that he had a better "story" to tell about that day. He wishes that it stood out in his memory or that thinking about it overwhelmed him with some form of emotion.  

But truth be told, at the time it was just another box to check off -- literally. That's what he said he remembers, how it felt routine.  

He had recently turned 18 years old and to him it was another part of getting older and becoming a "contributing member of society."

However, he didn't actually vote until four years later in the 2016 Presidential Election. He didn't think he needed to before. Perhaps, because of his own insecurities that his vote didn't matter.

"That was really my political awakening," Coolbaugh said. "After the 2016 election, I felt like I could have done more. I could have gotten more involved -- it just didn't seem as crucial before that."

Coolbaugh has grown up since then though. He said through his involvement with YCYD, he sees just how eager the younger generation is to get involved in politics. 

And their ranks in the electorate are growing too.

Registered voters aged 34 and under in the commonwealth currently outnumber those over 64, according to July statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of State. That accounts for 22 percent of the state's population -- but 25 percent of people registered to vote.

Young Pennsylvanians are registering to vote in higher numbers than older residents, according to data from the Democratic analytics firm, TargetSmart.

"We want our generation to vote," Coolbaugh said. "We need them to."

And CJ Weigle, president of York County Young Republicans, shares that same passion to empower the younger generation.

"It's extremely important to get young people involved," Weigle said. "When we start to see that interest develop, we need to nurture it, so that young people understand the weight their voices carry -- Republican or Democrat, it doesn't matter. "

Why the surge in young registered voters?

As of July, Democrats 18 to 34 in Pennsylvania outnumbered Republicans of the same age by more than 400,000 registered voters.

Many of those people live in Allegheny County and Philadelphia. But counties where young Republicans outnumber young Democrats include Butler, Franklin, Lancaster, Westmoreland, and York.

Voters 18 to 34 accounted for roughly 26 percent of all Democratic votes in the state, while Republicans in the same age range accounted for roughly 20 percent of the total Republican votes.

And Coolbaugh said he thinks that is because young voters are overwhelmingly progressive.

"Under the Trump administration," Coolbaugh said, "we've seen human rights being threatened, and we are taking that seriously."

In Weigle's opinion, Trump has in fact gotten younger voters interested. However, he finds this to be a trend for a different reason -- the president's approach is more energizing and thus having a similar effect on the country's youth.

"He's kind of like Bernie Sanders," Weigle said. "He speaks to younger voters at their level and gets them excited to take part in the conversation." 

TargetSmart requested new voter registration information from the Pa. Department of State from a couple months before February's school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and compared it to information from a couple months after.

Statewide, the share of new voters under 30 increased by 16 percent  -- more than anywhere else in the country.

And neither Coolbaugh nor Weigle think that's a coincidence. 

"The current political climate has shocked a lot of people," Coolbaugh said. "It's scary to see children -- people even younger than us -- being affected by gun violence. So naturally we are empathetic and compelled to try and make a difference."

In the wake of the tragic school shootings, and after repeated challenges to our democracy, young people are engaged in the political process, Weigle said.

"We should do what we can to remove the obstacles to their participation and give them a voice in our democracy instead," Weigle said. "I don't care if you're far on the left or far on the right." 

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record.

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