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Advocacy group aims to engage North Carolina college students ahead of 2022 election

Vox Efx

For the next few weeks, college students across the country will return to campus to start the fall semester. During that stretch, NextGen America will try to register as many students as possible to vote, with a particular focus on the battleground states.

The group's welcome week is a voter registration drive timed with the return of students to college campuses across the country. The nonpartisan group is targeting 186 schools in key battleground states, including Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and North Carolina.

NextGen's Vice President of Communications Antonio Arellano said that the goal is to register 200,000 students, ages 18-35, with its campaign this cycle. NextGen will be on 17 North Carolina campuses in the coming days, including UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Appalachian State and historically Black institutions including N.C. Central and Winston Salem State.

Arellano noted in a telephone interview that the issues driving voter engagement among college-age students are top priorities for progressives, such as abortion rights, racial equity, climate change, and the economy.

"Young people are struggling to make ends meet," Arellano said. "They're dealing with the increased cost of living, they're unable to afford rent."

While there is no shortage of pressing issues to motivate younger voters, history shows they still lag behind older groups when it comes to turning out for an election, according to Professor Michael Bitzer, author and Politics Department Chair at Catawba College.

Citing state elections board data, Bitzer said Generation Z voters — classified as those under the age of 25 — account for a little more than 900,000, or 12%, of North Carolina's registered voters.

"But that generation has had, and this is typical of young voters, the lowest turnout rate," Bitzer said.

 Registered voters in North Carolina by generation and party affiliation. Percentages indicate portion of that generation registered to a party.
Registered voters in North Carolina by generation and party affiliation. Percentages indicate portion of that generation registered to a party.

Bitzer said it was not surprising that the progressive issues cited by NextGen's Arellano are the ones that resonate the most with millennial voters or potential voters.

"From Boomers and GenX-ers, party identification tends to be fairly narrowly split between the two parties," Bitzer said. "But when you get to Millennials we see a distinct Democratic advantage and I think that that is continuing to play out in Generation Z as well."

Bitzer cited Harvard University's recent Youth Poll as evidence that younger voters lean leftward.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.