After Parkland, Young Voters Were Galvanized, Activists Vow To 'Continue To Organize'

Nov 8, 2018
Originally published on November 12, 2018 2:00 pm

After 17 people were killed in a school shooting in Parkland, Fla. earlier this year, students emerged as a driving force behind the gun control debate.

Numbers are still being crunched, but early figures indicate turnout in the midterms among young voters jumped this year. And gun policy may have played a key role in, if not mobilizing, this bloc — and at the very least getting this cohort engaged in the electoral process.

Gun violence is a problem that is ubiquitous in the U.S. and mass shootings are becoming increasingly more commonplace.

On Wednesday, a dozen people were killed at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif. That shooting came just a few days after one at a Tallahassee yoga studio, and a week before that a gunman killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

These incidents were just in the past two weeks.

Alessia Modjarrad, a freshman at Indiana University, voted for the first time in this week's midterms. She said she worked hard to get what she calls "gun sense" candidates elected, but her efforts fell a little short.

"Unfortunately Liz Watson, the campaign I was volunteering for, and Sen. Joe Donnelly both lost a seat," Modjarrad said.

Congressional candidate Liz Watson, a Democrat, fell short trying to unseat incumbent Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., while Donnelly, who was seeking a second term, had his Indiana Senate seat flipped when Republican Mike Braun bested him.

Modjarrad is disappointed by those losses but optimistic about the fact that Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and will be sending a record number of women to the 116th Congress next year.

"So all in all a win, but not enough," Modjarrad said. "2020 can't come soon enough."

Shaping gun policy is an important issue for her.

"I think that if the Democrats want to keep not only the support from young voters, but this enthusiasm from young voters, then they're going to need to work with young voters to start drafting gun sense legislation," she said.

According to data released Wednesday from Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, estimates show about a third of young people ages 18 through 29 turned out to vote in the midterms.

While these figures are not definitive because most states have not certified their election tallies, the signs are encouraging. If the figures hold true, it would mean millions more young people showed up to the polls than in 2014.

John Della Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard's Institute of Politics, says the issue of gun violence is critical to understanding the enthusiasm of young voters this time around.

"It's a central motivating factor in the awakening of this generation, for sure," Della Volpe said.

Della Volpe said he spent much of the summer conducting focus groups and meetings with young Americans across the country. He said out of 16 issues that were determined to be the most pressing for the nation to address, from immigration to criminal justice reform to health care, one issue kept topping the list.

"In every single way that I can measure, school shootings was actually No. 1," Della Volpe said. "Gun violence was in the top five, but school shooting in particular is what stood out for a majority of young Americans."

People should not be dying in America because they're going to go to a Madden tournament or go grocery shopping, or just be Jewish and practice their religion or just be black in America. - Matt Deitsch, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduate and chief strategist, March For Our Lives

Della Volpe and others credit the March For Our Lives movement for helping to register young voters and keeping the gun issue alive throughout 2018.

Matt Deitsch graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland a few years before the shooting, but he has two siblings who survived the Feb. 14 massacre.

He is frustrated that no major gun laws have passed on a federal level and that so many shootings have taken place since the one at his alma mater.

"People should not be dying in America because they're going to go to a Madden tournament or go grocery shopping, or just be Jewish and practice their religion or just be black in America," Deitsch said.

"But that is what is happening because we have complacent leadership."

Deitsch is the chief strategist of March For Our Lives and said the gun control fight doesn't end with the election.

"I think a lot of our work is going to be to continue to organize. We have to hold this Congress accountable."

Correction : 11/12/18

In a previous Web version of this story, the name of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement was incorrectly given as the Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement.

Previously posted on Nov. 10: An earlier Web version of this story incorrectly said the shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif., occurred on Thursday. It occurred Wednesday night local time.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Shootings like the one we've just been hearing about are part of what has jarred many young people into political awareness. After the shooting in Parkland, Fla., students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took the lead in the debate over gun violence. They aimed to mobilize young voters and change the face of the midterm elections. How did that work out? Here's NPR's Brakkton Booker.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Alessia Modjarrad is a freshman at Indiana University and a first-time voter. She worked hard to get what she calls common sense gun candidates elected.

ALESSIA MODJARRAD: Unfortunately, Liz Watson, the campaign I was volunteering for, and Senator Joe Donnelly both lost a seat.

BOOKER: Democrat Liz Watson, running for the U.S. House, fell short trying to unseat Indiana Republican Trey Hollingsworth. And Democrat Joe Donnelly's Senate seat flipped when the GOP's Mike Braun bested him. She's also bummed about another race a thousand miles away.

MODJARRAD: If we're talking about the Texas Senate race, man, poor O'Rourke.

BOOKER: That's Beto O'Rourke, the Democrat who lost to Republican Ted Cruz. Modjarrad is excited that Democrats will control the House in the next Congress, which she hopes will pass further gun control laws.

MODJARRAD: I think that if the Democrats want to keep not only the support from young voters but this enthusiasm from young voters, that they're going to need to work with young voters to start drafting gun sense legislation.

BOOKER: According to data released yesterday from CIRCLE, a political research and engagement center at Tufts University, initial estimates show nearly a third of 18 to 29 year olds cast a ballot this year. Those figures are not definitive. But if they hold true, it would mean millions more young people showed up to the polls than in 2014. John Della Volpe has a theory why - gun violence.

JOHN DELLA VOLPE: It is a central motivating factor in the awakening of this generation for sure.

BOOKER: Della Volpe is the director of polling at Harvard's Institute of Politics. He says in surveys he conducted with young people weeks before the election, gun control was a top issue.

DELLA VOLPE: I don't mean to say it's only about school shootings, it's only about guns. But that's one factor that, I think, kind of opened the door for them to consider other issues.

BOOKER: He says the March For Our Lives movement helped register young voters and kept the gun issue alive throughout 2018. Matt Deitsch is a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. That's the Parkland, Fla., high school where 17 people were killed in February. He's frustrated no major gun laws have passed on a federal level and that so many shootings have taken place since the one at his alma mater.

MATT DEITSCH: People shouldn't be dying in America because they're going to go to a Madden tournament or go grocery shopping or just be Jewish or just be black in America. But that is happening because we have complacent leadership.

BOOKER: Deitsch, the chief strategist for March For Our Lives, says the gun control fight doesn't end with the election.

DEITSCH: I think a lot of our work is going to be continue to organize. We have to hold this Congress accountable.

BOOKER: But gun control wasn't the top issue in the midterms among voters overall. Exit polls conducted by the AP and ABC found it lagged far behind health care, immigration and the economy. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.