A Possible Win-Win for Young Voters

With less than three weeks until the high-stakes midterm elections, political activists in New York State’s First Congressional District have decided to meet young voters where they spend significant amounts of time: on social media.

Democracy Heroes 2018, a social media contest with a weekly $500 prize, was unveiled earlier this week in an attempt to harness the energy of young voters and get them into polling stations on Nov. 6. 

Mara Gerstein, an East Hampton resident, led the development of the contest, which will be overseen by the People Votes, a nonpartisan educational initiative to increase civic engagement among America’s youth. This year’s pilot contest is a partnership between the People Votes and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, which was founded in 1966 in honor of a young civil rights activist killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Stony Brook University recently joined the foundation’s Vote Everywhere campaign, which aims to ensure voting opportunities for college students across the country. As such, Stony Brook students will also help run and oversee the Democracy Heroes 2018 contest.

Competing is simple and, according to the website, open to those 13 and up who “like to make and share stuff on social media.” Young people are required to create content related to voting — it can be a straightforward call to action such as “Get out and vote” or something more specific to the First Congressional District like “Go to NY01votes.org and make a plan to vote” — and post that content in the form of a message, GIF, meme, or video on their favorite social media outlet. Then they must tag the contest using the following handles or hashtag: @thepeoplevotes, @andrewgoodmanF, or #DemocracyHeroes2018.

In addition, young voters have been encouraged to sign up to receive voting information and reminders from a newly developed texting icon, Viola Voter, produced by the Andrew Goodman Foundation.

All content, which must be bipartisan, is collected and vetted by a jury that will include Stony Brook students. Finalists will be shared on the People Votes website, and a $500 winner will be announced each weekend before Nov. 6.

“Winning content will depend on how impactful, emotionally resonant, and attention grabbing the message is,” Ms. Gerstein said, seated in the Starbucks in East Hampton last week. “It’s really about getting college-age kids talking to one another about voting and encouraging each other to vote.” 

Ms. Gerstein is also the executive director of the People PAC, a partisan organization consisting of content creators and data scientists who collaborate to educate and engage voters using the tools of pop culture and social media. Although People PAC members founded the People Votes entity, she stressed that the latter is nonpartisan and focuses solely on voter engagement. She added, however, that both organizations share a mission to rally creative people and produce media in defense of democracy.

“Traditionally, young people have been a really disenfranchised group,” Ms. Gerstein said. “But these kids are super woke right now. So who better to try and get college kids to vote than their peers? This isn’t adults telling kids to do something. It’s kids telling kids.”

It’s clear that social media has immense power to motivate young voters — a group traditionally seen as less engaged with elections, especially the midterms. Therefore, Ms. Gerstein’s team, which includes Michael Hirschorn, the C.E.O. of Ish Entertainment, and Yael Melamede, an Oscar-winning documentary film producer, who serve as jurors and advisers, and Reinhardt Schuhmann, a digital products manager, hopes that the social media contest will result in more 18 to 34-year-olds voting in November. Earlier this year, Facebook’s “Are you registered to vote?” campaign led to a huge surge in youth registration.

Although the contest calls for strictly bipartisan content, the emphasis on the youth vote could be regarded by some as a partisan push since young voters typically lean Democratic. Furthermore, the Democracy Heroes 2018 contest is focusing its efforts on students within the First Congressional District, one of 206 counties nationwide earmarked as “pivot counties” that went from supporting Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. Within these counties, the much-energized youth voter group, particularly college students and first-time voters, has been recognized as one of the crucial factors that could swing the pendulum back in the Democrats’ favor. 

Ms. Gerstein explained that the People Votes will fund distribution of winning content via paid social platforms, such as Facebook, that specifically target colleges in the congressional district, namely Stony Brook University and Suffolk Community College.

“It’s like what the Russians did but for good!” said Ms. Gerstein, who is vocally and demonstratively opposed to Lee Zeldin, the Republican incumbent. “Russia paid to target ads created by Russians with the intention of telling lies and sowing confusion among people. . . . We are paying to place ads created by young voters in front of their peers to encourage college kids to vote.”

Contest details can be found at the­peoplevotes.org/democracy-heroes.