ATLANTA – Preethi Gowrishankar was never really politically active before this year. But watching polarization increase during President Donald Trump’s administration changed that.
The 27-year-old data scientist put on a face mask and stood in line on a recent sunny but cold day in Atlanta to cast a ballot early for Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock ahead of Georgia's Jan. 5 runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.
“We’ve seen in the last four years what apathy leads to and where it can get us,” she said. “So I’ve tried to make an effort to become a lot more informed of my choices and to make my voice heard.”
Strong turnout among voters under 30 nationwide helped propel Democrat Joe Biden to victory over Trump in the November presidential election. Young voters were key to Biden's narrow win in Georgia, with a margin of just under 12,000 votes.
Now, with the national spotlight on Georgia's Senate races, the campaigns and voter mobilization groups are working furiously to make sure young voters turn out for the runoffs, which pit Ossoff and Warnock against Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. A win by either Republican would maintain the Senate majority for the GOP, while a sweep by both Democrats would yield of 50-50 split in the chamber, with the tie-breaking vote going to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
The push to connect with young voters has been especially apparent for the Democratic campaigns, which have more to gain from youth turnout — and more to lose if there's a drop-off.
Ossoff and Warnock have held rallies in college towns, invested in staff to help register and mobilize young voters, engaged social media influencers to promote content and run ad campaigns on new media and digital platforms. They recently hosted a game night on Twitch, a livestreaming platform popular with young gamers. Ossoff also has made a push to connect with voters through TikTok, a video sharing app used by millions of U.S. teens.
Perdue's campaign did not respond to a request for comment, and Loeffler's campaign directed questions to Abigail Sigler, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party. Sigler did not answer a specific question asking how the campaigns are reaching out to young voters but sent a statement attacking Ossoff and Warnock and asserting that policies backed by Perdue and Loeffler are better for young voters.
In Georgia, people under 30 cast about 16% of the votes in the November election, compared with 13% nationwide, according to AP VoteCast. About 6 in 10 voters under 30 in Georgia backed Biden over Trump. But like voters overall, youngers voters split starkly by race and ethnicity. Young non-white voters backed Biden overwhelmingly, with roughly 8 in 10 supporting Democrats. Among young white voters, Trump was favored by about two to one.
Nse Ufot is the executive director of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan group founded by former Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacey Abrams.
“From registration, to actually turning out to vote, to volunteering, we’ve absolutely witnessed and been a part in the increase in youth participation in our elections,” Ufot said.
The group registered thousands of young voters during nationwide protests against racial inequality this year, launched an intensive effort to combat misinformation about voting on social media and have leaned into virtual events and virtual mobilization efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic, efforts that are continuing through the runoff elections.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of CIRCLE at Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, which studies youth voting trends, said youth voting turnout is being affected by both external investment and peer-to-peer political engagement among young people.
“Especially in the pandemic era of 2020, there is both mobilization from external groups and political parties, but also huge amounts of young people making social media contact to communicate what they believe politically, who they think people should vote for and the issues that they really care about,” she said.
Young Democrats aren't the only ones who are engaging. Young Republican voters, weary of having Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress, have been mainstays at the large rallies held by Perdue and Loeffler.
Dylan Leonard, a 20-year-old student from Milton, Georgia, sat on a park bench after a recent rally in the wealthy suburb of Atlanta where Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and senior White House adviser, touted Perdue and Loeffler as “the last line of defense” against Democrats imposing their agenda on the nation.
He lamented Trump's election loss but sounded a hopeful note that Republicans can be redeemed with victories in the Senate runoffs.
“Hopefully we’ll have a good go around. It hasn’t been exactly what we’ve wanted so far,” Leonard said. "But hopefully we’ll put it all together with Georgia.”
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.