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Minnesota seeing a monster surge in voter registration among the young

Some 36,000 people ages 18 to 30 have registered to vote.

Some 36,000 people ages 18 to 30 have registered to vote. Star Tribune

Going into the midterms, Minnesota has about 52,000 newly registered voters. That’s complete newbies, mind you – people who have never voted before.

It’s nearly doubled since 2014, and that’s coming on the heels of the recent primary that produced the highest turnout since 1994.

Even more interesting: About two-thirds of these new voters -- nearly 36,000 people -- are 18 to 30 years old.

Higher registration doesn't always lead to higher turnout. But if even a fraction of these people show up to the polls, it’s going to sway the outcome. Which prompts the question: Why do they suddenly care?

League of Women Voters spokesperson Nick Harper is seeing young people galvanized by issues like gun control, student debt, and health care -- enough to convince them to get themselves and their friends registered.

A 2015 study by the Knight Foundation of 18- to 24-year-olds attempted to delve into their motives. Since 1999, their participation in local elections has fluctuated somewhere between 18 and 27 percent.

The study found they possess relatively lower trust in local government and believed there was a general lack of “trustworthy information.” Young people felt they weren’t educated enough on the issues to care. The key word they used to describe their feelings was “indifferent.”

Since then, something changed. Something made them pay attention. Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon thinks it has a lot to do with the national political climate. Something about it is a little more… personal.

“The issues are not necessarily new, but the way they’re being discussed is new,” he says.

He offers the gun control movement that arose out of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida last year as an example. The debate has raged for years, but Parkland students made it more intimate. Young people saw peers fighting for change, and realized they could, too.

“Once you get a new person involved who’s enthusiastic about voting, there tends to be a chain or a growth of new enthusiasm,” Harper says. Engagement "tends to feed itself.”

The surge may be new, but not necessarily unprecedented. Simon thinks the closest analogue might have been 2006, which saw a similar bump in young voters. That was when the United States was chest-deep in the Iraq War, and it wasn’t going great.

“A lot of young voters were critical of the war and its conduct,” he says. “The perception was that Americans were suffering.”

If there’s a pattern here, it’s that the young don’t necessarily climb aboard the political battleship for a debate -- but they do for a crisis.

Harper knows there’s a natural ebb and flow. He thinks these new voters are probably going to stick around for 2020, the next presidential election. After that, “Who knows?”

By then the fever may break and young folks might return to indifference. But one lasting effect will be the people they elect, and the policies they support.

That is, if they actually show up.