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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. As one who has tracked the elusive if not galvanized youth vote from coast to coast since the 2008 presidential campaign, I take particular interest in our subject today, the millennial and now post-millennial vote. This comes as the Pew Research Center has identified 1996 as the last birth year for millennials. Anyone born between 1981 and 1996, ages 22 to 37 in 2018, will be considered a millennial. Anyone born from 1997 onward will be part of a new generation. As we witness a fresh wave of student activism and protest, this is important to keep in mind. And our guest today, Heather Heargraves, is executive director of NextGen America, an organization civic and Trump impeachment advocate Tom Steyer founded. NextGen America is working in ten states to register, persuade, mobilize, and turn out young voters to support progressive candidates up and down the ticket. According to its master plan, if young people, the largest block of voters this cycle, turn out in November 2018 like they did in the special elections in Virginia and Alabama in 2017, the nation will likely see a progressive tidal wave. Hargreaves adds “We know that millennials are engaged in politics every day, but not always at the ballot box, and young people in particular have a lot at stake in this election.” Heather, a pleasure to meet you.
HARGREAVES: Nice to meet you.
HEFFNER: We’ve seen now, as I mentioned in the introduction, a new generation in the wake of the shooting in Florida take control of the political rhetoric. How much is their infusion of political activism going to be helpful in those ten states?
HARGREAVES: I think that their enthusiasm is critical to turning out young voters in those ten states. I think though we have to make sure that that enthusiasm that we’re seeing on Twitter, on CNN, turns into votes. And as part of a response to the Parkland shooting, NextGen announced a one million dollar vote, high school voter registration program because we think it’s really critical that high school students that will be 18, are currently 18, by November 2018 will actually vote, because turning enthusiasm into votes doesn’t always happen. You, there’s a lot of effort that needs to happen to make that true.
HEFFNER: In 2016 there was a depression in youth turnout, in large measure thanks to a division between Clinton and Sanders. How is that or how are you attempting to correct that now?
HARGREAVES: I think what we need to do is we need to actually talk to young voters and talk to them about the issues that they care about. That’s something that we did on the Obama campaign and something that our organization spends a lot of time doing. You know, we plan to talk to over half a million voters, young voters between now and November, and if you talk to young voters and you talk to them about the issues that they care about, then I think that you, they will turn out no matter who the candidates really are. Obviously they want candidates that are gonna be authentic and that will also be talking to them about the issues that they care about, and, and I really think that that engagement piece is what’s critical to actually getting them to turn out.
HEFFNER: In the wake of Parkland too, there seems to be a consciousness among the post-millennials that may not have emerged in the millennial generation that our democratic values, as your boss Tom Steyer articulates, our democratic norms are being challenged on a daily basis with this President.
HARGREAVES: Yeah, exactly. I mean I think that this President is a huge galvanizing force for young voters, whether or not they’re millennials or Gen Z is, is the term that’s mostly used for the post-millennials.
HEFFNER: The post-millennials.
HARGREAVES: And I think that Donald Trump, you know, we saw this in the 2017 election cycle with the races in Virginia, you know, Donald Trump was a huge galvanizing force in that election. Young voters turned out at much higher numbers according to exit polls. We’re still waiting for all of the actual data on who voted, to confirm those numbers, but young voters were turning out but, but I think that Donald Trump is a factor, but there’s also other factors at play. I mean if you listen to the Parkland students, they’re not just talking about Donald Trump and what he’s doing as it relates to gun violence. They’re talking about Congress. And local elected officials. You know, they were in Tallahassee lobbying the elected officials in Florida, so they see it as a broader issue and not just about Donald Trump.
HEFFNER: But your thesis is that young people are pivotal to taking back the House of Representatives that could begin impeachment proceedings against the President. That is really the ultimate goal here.
HARGREAVES: Well I think, yes, the goal is to take back the House. I don’t think it’s just about impeachment. It’s also the House will be a backstop to anything that the Trump Administration wants to do. Obviously we need one branch of government in order to be able to stop any legislation that the Trump administration, you know, the tax plan that is hurting Americans, frankly, wouldn’t have been able to pass if Democrats controlled the House. So it’s not just about impeachment. Taking back the House and obviously the Senate is something that would be fantastic to take back. I think that the Democrats’ chances of taking back the Senate are just smaller than they are taking back the House.
HEFFNER: And in those ten states, where have you seen the most potential on the ground for seats that are vulnerable to be picked up?
HARGREAVES: Well if you look at the map, the, the map can really tell us where those seats are that are most vulnerable. There are 23 seats across the country that Hillary Clinton won that Donald Trump, or Donald Trump lost that are currently represented by Republicans. Seven of those seats are actually in California. I’m originally from Orange County, California, which is where four of the targeted Congressional districts are this year, which when I was growing up it was, you know, a super-conservative area. I think my Congressman when I was in high school was Christopher Cox who’s now a lobbyist for the NRA, and just to give you a sense of how conservative the area is. And now there are four targeted Congressional districts there. And so, so there are concentrations depending on, on the state, and so California is one of the key battlegrounds in taking back the House.
HEFFNER: One of the things that I think is most persuasive in Tom Steyer’s ads, the ad campaign is a bulletproof notion that there is unprecedented corruption in this administration, and that we need to work together not as Democrats or Republicans but as Americans and as a citizenry to protect our core values. That is part of your argument to young voters and that’s part of their argument to you. What is your strategy from this day forward?
HARGREAVES: It’s actually pretty simple. It’s to talk to voters, and I know that that seems too simple, but I think it’s something that you know, a lot of campaigns don’t traditionally do. They play TV ads and they think that that’s talking to voters, but what we really need to do is have one-on-one conversations, and we know that that’s, from statistical evidence, the thing that has the biggest impact on getting people to turn out and to vote for the candidates that you want. So we plan to have a lot of conversations one on one with young voters. So we’re on the ground, we have over a hundred staff and over 350 fellows on the ground that are talking directly to young voters. We do that on college campuses and off-campus, obviously the majority of young people are not on a college campus. We also do that through digital means, so text messaging is a huge component of our work in trying to talk directly, there’s, we do peer-to-peer text messaging, not just, you know, a text that you get and, and you can’t really respond to. It’s a back and forth. So our tactics are, are basic, are pretty simple. It’s just talk to as many voters as we can, to talk to them about the issues that they care about, how things are playing in Congress, where their current Congressional member stands on particular issues, where the candidates on the Democratic side or on the Republican side stand if there’s a competitive primary on both sides. To just, to educate them, registration is a huge component of our program as well. Obviously there’s a lot of young people that are just now becoming new voters, so we need to make sure that they get registered, and it’s also a really transient population, you know, people are moving because they’re moving for school or moving for other reasons, so we need to make sure that they re-register, because frankly our voting laws don’t really allow a lot of flexibility in that, so you need to make sure you re-register every time you move, even if it’s within the same state. So a lot of our efforts are that basic fieldwork.
HEFFNER: We talked about this briefly. You did engage in some of this work in the 2016 cycle, but there is a multiplying effect of a commitment that is millions and millions of dollars to engage young people in the political process. What did you learn from ‘16 that will help you in ‘18?
HARGREAVES: The number one lesson is to start early, which isn’t really a new lesson. I think we re-learn that lesson every cycle but the earlier we start in the states that we were in earlier in 2016, we had a bigger impact, so in 2017 and 2018, we try to start as early as we can. We were in seven out of our ten states in June of last year, so that was you know, a good year and a half or so ahead of the election cycle ‘cause we know how important starting early is. I think the other big lesson that was not, which was a little more surprising was how important it is to be on community colleges and sort of non-traditional campuses. We would go to campuses in 2016, the traditional four-year universities, and you would see other candidates there, you know, the Democratic Party’s doing efforts. You know, you’d see a lot of people out on campus tabling and what-not. You go to a community college and there would be nobody, and the students there would be much more interested in talking to you because they’re not constantly hearing from people on the issues or nobody had ever asked them to register to vote before, so we’ve made a really conscious effort to make sure that our program in 2018 is targeting some of those non-traditional college campuses.
HEFFNER: And what about enfranchisement or disenfranchisement, in the case of voters in states like Wisconsin with stringent ID laws, how are you tackling this challenge?
HARGREAVES: It’s a hard challenge. I think obviously we have to deal with it on a state-by-state basis because the laws vary tremendously by state.
HEFFNER: Which states, which states beside Wisconsin are the most problematic?
HARGREAVES: So, New Hampshire’s a state right now where the state legislature over the last year has been trying to disenfranchise college students. I don’t know, it’s not, seems like you’re aware.
HEFFNER: Yes, yes.
HARGREAVES: Yeah, they are passing a bill where if you’re a college student that like, lives in Massachusetts but goes to school in New Hampshire, that you’re not allowed to vote in New Hampshire.
HARGREAVES: Which frankly we think is crazy. If you’re a student in a state, obviously you’re there for more, the majority of the year. You should be allowed to vote in that particular state and, and frankly the state legislature is doing it just to disenfranchise college students and you know, we were working on an effort to prevent that. So that’s one example.
HEFFNER: In Wisconsin and other states is there a way you can collectively ensure that these students are protected so that if they have issues in the primary,
HEFFNER: Or in the general, that they will have some legal means to challenge people on the ground who are preventing them from voting?
HARGREAVES: Yeah, we have a program where we work with the other people on the independent expenditure side to make sure that there’s legal access for students, either on the ground, physically at their precincts, making sure that there’s a lawyer physically there so that they could ask questions if something comes up, or that you know, they can, there’s a phone call, there’s a phone line that all of the sort of independent expenditure groups use together so you can call them and say hey I have this problem and they’ll deal with it, you know, in real time. I think one important thing is trying to get young voters to vote early if, if that state allows it, either by absentee ballot or a lot of states do, you know, in-person early vote. Nevada’s a great example. They have a fantastic early vote program. I think it, a third to a half voter, a half of voters actually vote early in that state. So for one thing it means you can kind of take people off your list so that on election day you can focus on a smaller audience, but then there’s also if there are legal challenges or other problems, you kind of get those figured out in the, in the weeks before election day.
HEFFNER: And a technical question too. Are you doing this work in partnership with some of the other organizations that have emerged, specifically Swing Left is a major one that has worked towards the recruitment of candidates who are going to try to oppose incumbents or support candidates in open seats for the House?
HARGREAVES: Yeah, we work with a lot of groups on the ground. Some of the new resistance groups like Swing Left or Indivisible. Run for Something is an organization that is recruiting younger candidates, so work directly with all of them. We also work with some of the traditional Democratic establishment groups as well. We have a partnership with labor unions on the ground. Also on the youth side, we work with local groups that are doing youth organizing. You know, not a lot of groups nationally focus on youth organizing, but there are groups in state that are, so the Ohio Students Association is an example. We granted them money last, or sorry, in 2017 to be doing some work with students in Ohio, or Engage Miami is another great example, they do a lot of work on young voters in Miami so we partner with them on efforts.
HEFFNER: You must have an Excel spreadsheet right now that is indicating which of the districts have a greater potential based on the initial enthusiasm that you’ve assessed.
HARGREAVES: You know, I think it’s really hard to predict what races are gonna be the most competitive come November, but yeah, I mean we’re tracking this on the ground every day and we track sort of the national dynamics and how they’re affecting races, and that affects, you know, what candidates are saying on particular issues ‘cause obviously that’s important. But we also, you know, we have data from the field every day in terms of what young people are saying and doing, and how enthusiastic they are, so we can tell if there’s a particular area where people seem to be less enthusiastic. I would say in terms of enthusiasm, we see great enthusiasm across all ten of our states. You know, people are incredibly engaged whether or not it’s around sort of the response to Parkland, or around the DACA fight has been a significant motivation for young voters, so enthusiasm I don’t think is a challenge. I think obviously there are places where there are particular candidates that are more or less of interest to people, and I think as the primaries play out, we’re gonna be able to track those races more specifically to see okay, is this more competitive or less competitive based on who the candidates actually are now? I mean the majority of these races, we don’t know who the candidates on the November ballot will be.
HEFFNER: Right. It has been said that young people are dormant, non-existent during midterm cycles. That has been the history to date. You are attempting to confound and upset that status quo.
HARGREAVES: We are and I think that we can. I, I really think one of the reasons that young voters haven’t turned out in midterms is that nobody’s talking to them and nobody’s focusing on them. If you look at how much attention other organizations have given young voters, it’s just not that significant.
HEFFNER: Is it that, Heather, or is it that there is a facelessness in the midterm contests where young people lack a champion of their cause, you really have to root yourselves in the local issues like you’re doing?
HARGREAVES: Yeah, I think that that’s probably part of it, but I think that local issues also really matter. I think in the Virginia election we actually saw that the local candidates for the House of Delegates were in most times more motivating than the top of the ticket. So you can have local races where young people are really motivated so I, I don’t think that that’s not, hasn’t been true in the past but I think that we can you know, with local candidates that people actually respond to.
HEFFNER: Well when was Rock the Vote founded?
HARGREAVES: Ooh, I don’t know, the mid-90s I think?
HEFFNER: But, in the early or mid-90s…
HEFFNER: So they were supposed to be targeting young people for all of those midterm cycles. I, again I just want the history here to be understood.
HEFFNER: What did they do wrong?
HARGREAVES: Well I don’t think that, I mean Rock the,
HEFFNER: They didn’t have the capacity you do necessarily.
HARGREAVES: And Rock the Vote does very different work and I think that Rock the Vote has been fantastic in getting more, more youth engaged. I think that more can be done. One of the things Rock the Vote doesn’t do is that they don’t do partisan work for particular candidates. So it’s sort of a, c-3 or a non-partisan organization. We are really on the edge of being super-partisan in that we’re gonna end up talking about specific candidates and making sure people really turn out, because I think being more candidate-focused actually can help in turning out more, more voters. I think the other big piece that we’re forgetting is that technology has changed so much, and how young voters consume information is something that a lot of organizations aren’t staying on top of. And so if you do a traditional television ad model of campaigns, you’re just not talking to the majority of 35 and under voters. The majority of 35 and unders are cord cutters. I don’t know if you watch television. I mean I actually have cable but so I’m in, on the outlier for millennials, but if you’re not watching TV and not consuming information in the same way that traditional voter, older voters are, how are you talking to young voters? And I think that that’s where our organization is doing a good job is making sure that we’re innovating and trying to find the ways that young voters are consuming information. We were one of the first organizations to use Snapchat to advertise politically, so you know, again, Snapchat didn’t exist when Rock the Vote was created, and it didn’t exist when I was working on the Obama campaign in 2008,
HARGREAVES: So making sure that you’re staying in touch with how people are engaging is important.
HEFFNER: I’ve stressed this to you and your colleagues and I hope you’ll take it to heart because there’s also a massive disinformation campaign to stymie the truth and those young people who are, on the receiving end of disseminated knowledge,
HEFFNER: Information, misinformation have to be discriminating and especially careful today, and I don’t know what you’re doing in that regard to ensure the integrity of fact obviously you can take some of the television ads and dice them up into YouTube videos or tweet them out to your followers, but there is a pervasive problem we’ve long discussed now on this program, and one example in the electoral context was Twitter memes that were alerting people in battleground states that they could text their vote during the 2016 cycle. No doubt some of the Russian trolls and, and bots were proliferating that. How are we going to fight back against that?
HARGREAVES: I think the best way to fight back is to find authentic voices that young voters and individuals will actually trust, so that’s mostly trusting their friends and family. So making sure that we’re creating relationships with a larger community so that when you hear, if your friend sent you a test message saying something about the election, you would I assume trust that message, and that’s different than if you’re gonna see, you know, random news on the internet or on Twitter where you don’t know who the source really is and it could be Russian bots or it could be a campaign locally. So I think that finding and really fining ways to make sure that people are talking to their friends and family is critical. Obviously there’s a lot of efforts around trying to beat back Russia and the fake news and, and we support those efforts broadly, but day to day dealing with young voters, I think it’s just making sure that they’re hearing from more authentic voices.
HEFFNER: A warning is that you can be duped and believe something is authentic when it’s not, and so I want to emphasize to you and to our viewers the stakes here.
HARGREAVES: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
HEFFNER: You yourself have said they’re incredibly significant, this cycle.
HARGREAVES: Well I, I also think that honestly, taking back Congress is part of fixing, or helping fix this problem. I mean if you look at what Congress is doing right now to investigate what’s, what the Russians are doing around the election, I don’t know, it seems like nothing, right? And, which is in, crazy and a huge miscarriage of justice in our democracy and I think taking back the House or, and or the Senate is gonna be critical to making sure that post 2018 we’re actually investigating this and using the Justice Department instead of you know, attacking states like California. It’s actually, you know, investigating what’s happening in Russia.
HEFFNER: Right. Well I’m reminded too, you mentioned that DACA is a galvanizing force, gun reform is a sensible approach to students now from urban to suburban communities, but I’m remembering too the Boston Globe’s front page predicting what might materialize with the Trump Administration. Mass deportations begin. And that became reality, so I do think that, and I wonder if we could close on this point, you could reflect on this. Both middle of the road voters who are concerned about Trump’s erratic behavior who might be registered Republicans, registered Democrats or come from families who are registered in both parties, as well as people who might be associated with the Democratic Party or progressivism, we’re all concerned. Seventy percent of the country is concerned. So if we see Tom and you producing ads that are visualizing the impeachment that is beginning, won’t that resonate?
HARGREAVES: I think that it is a motivating factor for voters, but I think that there’s a chance that this Congress goes through impeachment proceedings before November. I mean if Republicans actually think that this is going to hurt them electorally in November, then maybe they’ll see the writing on the wall that the Trump Admini… Trump himself, you know, should be impeached, that he has multiple offenses that qualify for impeachment, and you know, we don’t know what’s gonna happen with the Mueller investigation but obviously that could lead to some sort of impeachment proceeding as well, so I think, you know, we have to realize that it’s March, what, 14th today and, and that you know, there’s a lot that can happen between now and November 6h. But I do think continuing to talk about what’s happening with the Trump Administration and again, the gross miscarriage of justice that’s continuing to happen every day, is critical for continuing to push Congress but also for motivating voters in November.
HEFFNER: Thank you, Heather.
HARGREAVES: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.