Young people turned out to protest. Now, will they vote?

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Protesters march through the streets of Manhattan, New York, Sunday, June 7, 2020. New York City lifted the curfew spurred by protests against police brutality ahead of schedule Sunday after a peaceful night, free of the clashes or ransacking of stores that rocked the city days earlier. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

CHICAGO – Young adults have filled streets across the country on a scale not seen since the 1960s to protest for racial justice after the death of George Floyd. But whether that energy translates to increased turnout in November is another question.

They could make a difference in the presidential race — polls show President Donald Trump is deeply unpopular with young voters — with control of the Senate and hundreds of local races also at stake. But some activists are concerned that their focus will be on specific causes instead of voting.

“In a normal election year, turning out the youth vote is challenging,” said Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote, which works to build political power among young people. “That’s even more true now. People’s minds are not on it.”

Voters under 30 have historically turned out to vote at much lower rates than older voters, though the 2018 midterm elections saw the highest turnout in a quarter century among voters ages 18-29 — a spike attributed in part to youth-led movements like March for Our Lives against gun violence.

There are signs young people are getting more politically engaged. DeWitt said more people registered to vote through Rock the Vote’s online platforms last week — some 50,000 — than in any other week this year. The organization’s social media accounts had as many impressions between Monday and Friday of last week as it typically has in an entire month, with more than 1 million.

“It will just be incredibly important to us to make sure we’re protesting now and voting later,” DeWitt said.

That is not assured. The coronavirus pandemic has halted traditional campaigning as well as big concerts and festivals, the kinds of places where campaigns and groups like Rock the Vote and HeadCount typically recruit young voters. On top of that, lawmakers' efforts to change voting laws in some states could restrict younger voters like college students.

Joe Biden's Democratic presidential campaign is banking on these voters supporting him when the choice is a binary one between Biden and Trump. But that is not guaranteed.