- Associated Press - Sunday, March 8, 2020

CHRISTOPHER, Ill. (AP) - Courtney Young tells a small crowd gathered here that young people are quickly taking over as the largest voting-age bloc in America. On one end of the age spectrum, her audience includes middle-schoolers not yet old enough to vote, and on the other, retirees into their 80s.

“If every young person went out and voted, they could decide an entire election,” says Young, chair of the newly created Young Democrats of Franklin County, Illinois. “The issue we have right now is things won’t change if you people stay idle, stay in that mindset and don’t get out and vote.”

She poses this question to the group: “What do we do to get young people interested in politics again?”

It’s one that has been on her mind a lot. Last fall, Young, 22, pitched the idea to create a political chapter specifically geared toward Franklin County’s young Democratic voters - those in their late teens, 20s and 30s.

After several months of planning, her idea came to life Thursday evening inside the Christopher Civic Center.

Young grew up in Buckner, home to about 460 people, and graduated from Christopher High School in 2015. She then headed out for college at Stetson University, a college that appealed to her, in part, because it was near her grandparents’ home in Florida. She was surprised by how much had changed when she returned to the region in 2018.

“When I left and went to school in Florida, our county, specifically, was very much a blue county. We were very solidly Democrat with a strong union base supporting the party,” Young told The Southern in an interview Wednesday. “And so it was a surprise to me when I returned home to find that we had gone so deep into the red and that voters were trending more to the Republican side.”

Between her jobs substitute teaching and interning at the Franklin County State’s Attorney’s Office, she became active in local politics and started regularly attending Franklin County Democratic Organization meetings.

“I was the youngest Democrat in Franklin County involved in the organization,” said Young, a first-year law student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “It was hard early on for me to get a word in edgewise on people not used to having a younger voice in the room.”

But relatively quickly, she found her footing. Young was appointed to fill a precinct committee vacancy in 2018, and she’s on the ballot this year for the first time, unopposed, for a different precinct. She was also nominated to serve as the party’s secretary.

But Young said she saw a need to encourage more young people to get involved.

Last fall, she pitched the idea of a “Young Democrats” chapter, and the Franklin County Democratic Organization approved it in October.

Her initiative has created a buzz with the older party members. As she navigated the room Thursday with ease, greeting guests, several of the older party members remarked to The Southern that they were impressed by her poise, leadership skills and fresh ideas. They also hope she’s part of the solution for helping the local party regain its foothold.

“She’s a bright young lady,” said Jim Eaton, chair of the Franklin County Democratic Organization. “Questions always come up about younger people getting involved and what it takes to get them involved, and she’s always full of ideas.”

Eaton said he was an outlier when he started attending party meetings in his early 30s, describing it as an ongoing struggle to recruit young people into the fold. Outside of the student-led party chapters at SIU, a county youth chapter hasn’t existed in Southern Illinois for many years, he said. It’s important to grow the next generation of party leaders, Eaton said, and be open to listening to the ideas the young generation brings to the table even if their views differ from those of the long-time party stalwarts.

“It gets to the point where we have to say, ‘OK, young people, what do you want?’ We’ll work toward those goals that you guys have,” Eaton said.

Nationally, young voters have the power to become the most prominent voting bloc in America. The Boomer electorate - while still quite large and politically active - is shrinking in size while Millennial voters continue to grow, mainly through immigration and naturalization, Richard Fry, a senior researcher focusing on economics and education at the Pew Research Center, wrote in an April 2018 report.

“While the growth in the number of Millennials who are eligible to vote underscores the potential electoral clout of today’s young adults, Millennials remain far from the largest generational bloc of actual voters,” his report said. “It is one thing to be eligible to vote and another thing to actually cast a ballot.”

That said, more Millennial generation citizens are voting more as they age and become more stable in their lives and careers, in line with past generations. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, voter turnout increased from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2018 - the largest percentage point increase for any age group between the two most recent midterm elections, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While Boomers have traditionally carried the Republican mantle, younger voters have tended to prefer Democratic candidates.

Young said that she hopes that getting more young people involved in politics locally, that “will hopefully change the tide within the next few years” in Franklin County. Though, she’s not naive about the challenging work that lies ahead. Attendance among young people was light at Thursday’s event, and while there are more eligible young voters in the nation as a whole, Franklin County, like with many rural areas, is getting older.

Brandi Cairns, 31, of Benton, was among those who attended Thursday evening after hearing about the meeting on Facebook. Cairns said she’s a few weeks away from completing her bachelor’s degree in political science, and she’s concerned about finding a job in Southern Illinois where she can make a decent living. She said she came out to learn more about the organization, and to ask the political candidates in attendance their plans to address concerns she has about the affordability of higher education and the ability to find a living-wage job upon graduation.

Thursday’s kickoff event featured short talks by Joel Funk and Ray Lenzi’s chief of staff. Funk and Lenzi are vying for the Democratic Party nod for the 12th congressional seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, who is running for re-election unopposed in the March 17 primary.

Audrey Gulley, 16, attended with her grandpa. Gulley said she’s interested in making new connections as she prepares for her future after high school and contemplates a career in law. Gulley said she was raised in a Democratic household; her dad is former Franklin County Treasurer John Gulley. But the younger Gulley said she’s already decided that this is the party for her, too.

“The values consist of being human, being friends with people, being loving toward other people - that’s what I’ve been raised on, and those are the values that I choose every day,” she said, adding, “Like my grandpa said here, our generation is the generation that is going to fix the problems. That’s very important to me.”

Her grandpa, David Gulley, said he was encouraged to see young people in Franklin County gathering to talk about government. “I think it’s a very good thing,” he said. “Because it’s my generation that has let things get in the shape they’re in, and it’s the younger generation that are going to turn things around.”

Though she’s a Democrat, and has a partisan goal, Young said she is a big proponent of young people of all political stripes taking a greater interest in current events and political affairs.

“I think it’s very important that young people take an interest and are aware of the fact that their voice does matter when it comes to politics, especially in smaller communities like the ones we live in in Franklin County and Southern Illinois in general,” she said.


Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/2T75PNM

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