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What's on the minds of young voters in Milwaukee? A lot

Matthew Grover (center) of NextGen America talks with young voters Kate Browning (left) and Jack Borg as they sign a pledge promising to vote near the Milwaukee Public Market on Saturday.
Kayla Wolf for NPR
Matthew Grover (center) of NextGen America talks with young voters Kate Browning (left) and Jack Borg as they sign a pledge promising to vote near the Milwaukee Public Market on Saturday.

MILWAUKEE — Standing outside the Milwaukee Public Market, Matthew Grover has one thing on his mind: getting voters to turn out.

"It's extremely important," he tells two health care workers. "If we get the right people in positions of power, we can do all of these things simultaneously."

Grover is a regional field organizer for NextGen America, a youth voting group. And on a recent Saturday morning he was asking young people whether they are planning to vote during the midterms.

That's because even though young voters turned out in increasing numbers in the last two election cycles, the most recent NPR/Marist national poll found that this year, young voters were among the least likely to vote this fall.

Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic-leaning data firm, says there are some preconceived notions about young voters — that they are not a factor in midterm elections.

"And so campaigns tended not to spend resources on talking to younger voters and engaging with them," he said.

And Bonier says that in the end, voter turnout between the 2014 and 2018 election increased. He says there could be a big turnout this year, too.

In Wisconsin alone, more than 300,000 people have already voted by mail or in person.

Damian Funmaker performs a traditional Ho-Chunk dance with the Wisconsin Dells Singers and Dancers during an event hosted by Wisconsin Native Vote to encourage voting at the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center in Milwaukee, on Friday. The mural in the background, painted by Christopher Sweet, and reads, "Vote for our 7th generation."
Kayla Wolf for NPR
Damian Funmaker performs a traditional Ho-Chunk dance with the Wisconsin Dells Singers and Dancers during an event hosted by Wisconsin Native Vote to encourage voting at the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center in Milwaukee, on Friday. The mural in the background, painted by Christopher Sweet, and reads, "Vote for our 7th generation."

"We are seeing at this point greater engagement from women and younger voters and from voters of color than we saw in 2020 or 2018," Bonier said.

So we went to Wisconsin — where there are hotly contested races for the U.S. Senate and governor — to see if recent events, such as the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs decision, have enticed more voters to register.

And they have.

"Specifically, since Dobbs, there's been an increase in voter registrations among women and younger voters," Bonier said. "We're seeing the highest intensity surges among women under the age of 25. And it's definitely true in Wisconsin, but that's something that's been almost universally true around the country."

And for new voters like 19-year-old Kai Rowlands, making sure those in office pay attention to the youth vote is important, too.

Rowlands, a student at Marquette University, says those in office need to make sure "the younger generations' views are being taken into consideration and need to be represented."

Kai Rowlands, 19, poses for a portrait in his dorm room at Marquette University in Milwaukee, on Sunday. Rowlands is an undergrad studying physics and Spanish.
Kayla Wolf for NPR
Kai Rowlands, 19, poses for a portrait in his dorm room at Marquette University in Milwaukee, on Sunday. Rowlands is an undergrad studying physics and Spanish.

Young voters are known as reliable pillars of the Democratic base. And at a time when the Democratic Party is seeing low favorability, we asked Rowlands and two other left-leaning voters in Milwaukee about the issues they see as most important. Those issues ranged from abortion to the economy to climate change.

Abortion

Looming over the midterms is the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade — which meant states can enact their own abortion laws. In Wisconsin, an 1849 law banning abortion took effect after the Supreme Court decision. And it's weighing heavily on people's minds.

Kara Walla, a 29-year-old software engineer, is starting to think about having children, but worries what choices she will be left with if something goes wrong.

"Now I'm having to think about being in that position — of having something go wrong in a pregnancy and then not being able to access health care until the point where my own health is threatened, as well," Walla said. "And it's really scary."

Kara Walla, 29, poses for a portrait in her home in downtown Milwaukee, on Sunday.
Kayla Wolf for NPR
Kara Walla, 29, poses for a portrait in her home in downtown Milwaukee, on Sunday.

It's also really scary for Rowlands, who thinks about what that means for his younger sister.

The Supreme Court, "they're all kind of opinionated in their own ways and support what they want, not what the country wants," he said.

The economy

In a recent Marquette University Law School poll, inflation was one of the top concerns among respondents.

And it's true for Gen Z voters, like 20-year-old Melanie Medina.

Medina, a dental receptionist, worries about how expensive her bills have gotten — from groceries to rent.

"I moved out from home right when I was 18. It was semi cheap then," she said.

Now, she lives with her boyfriend, a roommate, and their cats. And rent has only gotten more expensive.

Melanie Medina, 20, poses for a portrait outside her apartment building in Greenfield, Wis., on Sunday. Medina works as a dental receptionist, and identifies as left leaning politically.
Kayla Wolf for NPR
Melanie Medina, 20, poses for a portrait outside her apartment building in Greenfield, Wis., on Sunday. Medina works as a dental receptionist, and identifies as left leaning politically.

The economy is also top of mind for Walla.

"My husband and I just bought a house last year," she said. "And between the mortgage payments and then car payments, we're starting to think is it even doable to have kids in this economy?"

The political landscape

President Biden's approval rating among young voters has improved over the past few months, according to recent NPR polling.

But that doesn't mean he should run again in 2024, Rowlands says.

"My grandparents are similar ages to him and there's no way I'd want one of my grandparents running the country. And that's no offense to them," he said. "I don't think that that level of uncertainty is necessarily something we should look for in a leader."

Walla, the only millennial we spoke to, is eager to see more young people in office.

"And at this point, it's like by younger you could be a younger person in politics in your 60s," she said.

Daysi Jiménez (center) and her sons (from left) Ben and Christopher cheer for U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes as he gives a speech at a Latinos for Mandela event at the Milwaukee Democratic Party office in Milwaukee on Saturday.
Kayla Wolf for NPR
Daysi Jiménez (center) and her sons (from left) Ben and Christopher cheer for U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes as he gives a speech at a Latinos for Mandela event at the Milwaukee Democratic Party office in Milwaukee on Saturday.

Climate change

For Medina, climate change has caused her a lot of anxiety.

"It's scary to think about the Earth not being able to sustain everyone who lives there," she said.

And Walla shares that same sentiment. She's worried about so much: mass extinction, pollution, microplastics, protecting freshwater.

"It's so huge," Walla said. "It feels like an existential threat in a lot of ways."

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