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First-time voters expected to turn out in large numbers on Election Day

RICHMOND, VA — Lunchtime at Highland Spring High School has been filled with more than the sounds of utensils and conversations this fall.

“There are several students who wear voter registration pins and t-shirts that have been going around registering students who are 18 years old to vote,” instructional assistant Ashley
Walton said.

This advocacy extends beyond the lunchroom to planned student carpools to polling stations by the juniors and seniors able to drive.

“I’m sure they will pitch in to take their friends to the polls,” Walton said. “And I’m hoping that they’ll do that.”

It’s an atmosphere that speaks to the heightened state of voter engagement in Virginia ahead of the midterm elections on Tuesday.

The past weeks have seen new registrations with old records broken and unprecedented voter enthusiasm for a midterm election.

“Nationally, the midterms suggest that we will have perhaps one of the higher numbers of voter eligibility actually turning out than ever before,” Ravi Perry, chair of the Political Science Department at VCU, said.

He noted the high levels of engagement from women and voters of color, groups not known for their midterm voting.

Preliminary polling showed a potential reversal of a decades-long decline in midterm voting that reached its low point in 2014, which saw the lowest turnout rate since the World War II, according to the United States Election Project. Virginia, at the time, matched the nationwide ballot average of 36.7 percent almost identically, lending further testament to the conventional wisdom that presidential elections carry greater importance to American voters.

But 2018 has not been a conventional year, as CBS 6 political analyst Bob Holsworth observes that “on both sides, Democrats and Republicans, there’s likely to be more involvement and engagement that we traditionally see during a midterm. And I’m comfortable saying that even without knowing the exact registration figures in Virginia because I’ve seen that nationally,” he said.

The most recent registration activity data compiled by the Virginia Department of Elections shows that almost 2.4 million had set to vote in the midterms as of September.

While this data doesn’t account for how many of those registered will vote or how, absentee voting numbers for Virginia have shown an uptick from previous midterm elections. This surge comes in spite of the many obstacles Barrett Martin, Virginia media manager for NextGen America, sees new voters facing in the Commonwealth.

"More schools are adding on-campus polling precincts now, but many students still need to go off-campus to vote,” Martin said. “On a day that they'll have classes and they're less likely than other voters to have a car."

“It's really up to the school system to educate young people in the reality of what each municipality does and how important state government is and how that affects them," Susan Perry, lead organizer of Virginia Organizing, said.

Perry believes the reason for this rise in engagement can be found in the public response to the President Donald Trump.

“We do know that what most people have in the foremost of their minds is not a political issue, it’s not the economy, it’s not the climate, it’s not even jobs,” he said. “It’s Donald Trump.”

Martin said that “in Virginia, we were lucky to get to see the resistance young people have towards Trump a little early, in our 2017 statewide elections, where Gov. Ralph Northam received a higher percent of the youth vote than even Barack Obama did in his election, statewide.”

But Perry stresses caution in assuming a certain turnout before the results of the midterms can be fully processed, especially since local predictions are much more difficult to make.

“We have no evidence that that’s ever really been the case. That’s part of the challenge,” Dr. Perry said.

By George Copeland Jr. and Irena Schunn (Special to WTVR.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students from the project reported this story.