Nicholas Kumar has been 18 for two days.
On the first day of the fall semester Thursday at Fresno State, the recent James C. Enochs High School graduate and Modesto transplant decided to register to vote on his way from one class to another.
“I’m not really interested in November,” Kumar said, referring to the upcoming general election. “But I want to be a part of the Democratic process.”
Asked if he was looking ahead to 2020, he nodded.
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“I am looking forward to the chance to reverse the damage done in this last cycle,” Kumar said, in reference to President Donald Trump.
Kumar is one of the tens of thousands of local college students targeted by NextGen America, a progressive group founded by Bay Area billionaire and liberal activist Tom Steyer.
The group has fanned out across the state, setting up booths offering notebooks, buttons, hats and other gifts to those willing to either register to vote or sign a pledge to vote. The pledge doubles as a survey, through which students can indicate various progressive issues that appeal to them: healthcare, immigration, gun control, access to abortion and so on.
“The hardest part is breaking through the apathy,” NextGen organizing director Kevin Lima said. “(Students) believe (political issues) don’t directly affect them right now. We try to show them that’s not true. There are decisions made about your body or costs like tuition and rent.”
Lima and other organizers have spent the year marshaling volunteers throughout the San Joaquin Valley, focusing on an area bordered to the north by California State University, Stanislaus and to the south by California State University, Bakersfield.
So far, the local operatives have registered 3,000 students to vote and received pledges from 5,000, NextGen spokeswoman Vanessa Moreno said. Now that school is in session, the group hopes to register an additional 12,000 students and pledge 12,000 more.
Moreno described NextGen as nonpartisan, but admitted the group clearly aligns with many policies supported by Democratic candidates: Harsher gun control, abortion access, protection for immigrants, protections for the LGBTQ community, marijuana legalization and so on.
The organizations is thus hoping to flip the House, and is focusing its local efforts on the Valley congressional districts currently represented by a Republican – 10th (Jeff Denham) and 21st (David Valadao).
The 18-34 demographic is, by population size, the largest chunk of eligible voters. But Baby Boomers still dwarf millennials in terms of election participation. According to elections analyst Political Data Inc., just 9 percent of 18-34 voters in California actually mailed in their absentee ballots in June, compared to 29 percent of voters 50-64 and 49 percent of voters 65 and older.
NextGen is hoping to tackle that disparity directly, and by doing so elect younger, more progressive thinkers to office.
Like their classmate Kumar, Romyna Teale, Alexis Banuelos and Samantha Ortega weren’t particularly interested in flipping the House or any specific issue on the upcoming ballot. They also weren’t surprised by the low 9 percent number, admitting they, too, did not vote in June.
But the trio signed NextGen’s pledge to vote in November, saying the separation of immigrant families at the border and other recent events spurred them into action.
“We have to act for what we want – immigration changes, healthcare, gun control, lower cost of college,” Banuelos said. “We have to determine our futures.”