No local surge in youth voter registration

Jim Thompson
Ashley Nolin, left, Shannon Reynolds and Raven Motley register to vote at the Northwest Florida State College Student Activities Center. [FILE PHOTO/DAILY NEWS]

FORT WALTON BEACH — In the days after a Parkland, Florida high-school shooting took the lives of 17 students and staff members, student activism began focusing on getting young people registered to vote.

Thus far in this part of Florida, there's little evidence that young people are responding to that call.

The rationale for getting young people to the polls is that they could help elect candidates who would tighten local, state and federal gun regulation.

“We need to make sure everybody registers, pre-registers and shows up at the polls, because our youth in this country don’t vote,” Ryan Deitsch, one of the Parkland students involved in the recent March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., told the Miami Herald in a recent interview. “They’ve been fear-mongered and basically fooled into not voting. And we’re tired of this BS.”

However, between Valentine's Day — the date of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings — and Wednesday, only a handful of young people had registered to vote in Okaloosa County, according to Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux.

In that 50-day span, just 110 people aged 18 or 19 registered to vote, according to Lux. That's just barely more than 10 percent of the 1,068 people who registered to vote in Okaloosa County during that time.

As in other Florida counties, Okaloosa voter registration officials reach out specifically to young people to get them to register to vote. They visit the county's high schools on a regular basis, offering students the opportunity to register. In addition to 18-year-olds, these efforts provide an opportunity for 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register for voting. The names of those pre-registered young people are automatically added to voter rolls on their 18th birthday.

In addition to the elections office's outreach efforts, the county's Republican and Democratic party organizations, and the NAACP, work regularly to get new voters registered, Lux said.

Neighboring Santa Rosa County also hasn't seen any surge in young people registering to vote.

"There has not been anything out of the ordinary," said Supervisor of Elections Tappie Villane. "It's about normal."

In Santa Rosa County, "normal" means that between Valentine's Day and Friday, 82 people aged 18 or 19 had registered to vote.

Villane suggested that could change as Florida's Aug. 28 primaries approach. The last day to register to vote in Aug. 28 balloting is July 30. Elections offices typically see an increase in registrations as elections approach, Villane said, but it won't be clear until after the July 30 deadline whether this year's increase will include a significant percentage of young voters. 

Elsewhere in the area, voter registration in Walton County also seems not to have been affected immediately by the focus of young gun-control advocates on getting their peers registered to vote. There is, though, some small bit of evidence that the county's young people may be paying more attention to the ballot box. Last year, just six people between the ages of 16 and 18 took advantage of pre-registration, according to Walton County Supervisor of Elections Bobby Beasley. For the same period this year, 18 people in that age group decided to pre-register to vote, he said.

"I would think maybe that (the focus of gun-control advocates on registering young voters) has something to do with it," Beasley said. But it's also possible that the county's increasing population could have boosted those numbers, he said.  

Speaking overall of young voter registration, Beasley said, "We really haven't seen an increase." Between Valentine's Day and April 5 of last year, 45 people between the ages of 18 and 24 registered to vote in Walton County, Beasley said. For the same period this year, 49 people between the ages of 18 and 24 registered to vote in the county.

While that's technically more registrations that last year, Beasley said, "considering the growth of our county, that's probably a decrease" in the percentage of young voters in Walton County.

When Walton County's elections officials go into local high schools each year to register voters, and to pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds, there has always been a noticeable interest among students. However, determining exactly how that enthusiasm translates into actual registrations can be a bit problematic.

"A lot of them will fill out the form," Beasley said, but many others, who may not have the proper identification on them, or have some other excuse, will simply take a blank form and may — or may not — fill it out later, Beasley said.

"For some of them, that's way down on their list of things to do," he said.