The election campaigner’s Holy Grail — the most elusive of all demographics — has long been the young adult crowd. Despite every conceivable attempt to get out that particular vote, the under-35 crowd remains largely unmoved. But the die-hard politicos among this set aren’t giving up on their peers, even though they’re fully aware of the challenge before them.

Melissa Mejia, 24, said she wants young people to realize they have “a voice at the table” when it comes to issues that are important to them. For her that means the environment, autonomy over their bodies, and the economy.

Raised in Redwood City and now a global politics student at Cal State Long Beach, Mejia said the main reason her age cohorts don’t vote is indifference.

“We don’t care, we don’t think it’ll make a big enough difference, that it’ll be too much of a hassle,” she said.
Mejia wants to change all that. So when she heard about a new digital messaging platform that uses peer pressure to get young people to vote, she jumped on board.

VoteCrew, which re-launched in September after a triumphant trial run last March, gathers friends and acquaintances into online teams — or “crews” — who vow to vote.

The crew members keep each other accountable by chatting with each other on the digital messaging channel in the lead-up to the election, and then reporting to their posse when the deed is done.

Mejia, who captains a few different crews, has so far recruited about 35 people from the Bay Area and on her college campus. The platform makes it fun and easy to connect, she said. And she thinks the psychology of peer pressure is a tactic that will work.

“There’s people that are like, ‘Well she’s going to do it for sure, so I’ll make sure I go [vote] as well,’” Mejia said. “And there’s that pressure of … ‘I’ve said that I’m going to do this thing, so now if I don’t go do it, how does that look?’”

The new approach to voter canvassing is proof there’s still optimism when it comes to getting young adults to vote. But there’s a long road ahead.

California’s voter turnout in 2014 was pathetic — lower than it’s ever been, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Only 42 percent of the 17.8 million eligible voters cast a ballot, and of those Californians who did vote, a mere 8.2 percent were 18 to 24, while 25 percent were 25 to 34, according to the California Secretary State’s Office.

In the wake of this disastrous turnout, it makes sense that the best people to draw out the young voters are their own peers.

VoteCrew’s creator is a 28-year-old UC Berkeley graduate student of public policy. Max Lubin already made a name for himself as the founder of Rise California, which advocates for free state university tuition. In fact, it was the free tuition campaign that led Lubin and his colleagues to set their sights on another goal: increasing the voice of young adults in the democratic process.

“We knew that even if we were the NRA of free college — incredible advocates — only 8 percent of students came out to vote in 2014,” Lubin said. “So we were never going to achieve our policy goals.”

Lubin and his team connected with Strive Digital, a channel messaging platform for advocacy groups in political campaigns, to make the vision a reality. The team performed a trial run in March, allowing students to pledge to vote in the June primary elections, and report to their crew when they cast a ballot.

Primaries are singularly tough nuts to crack — the June 2014 primary had a less than 4 percent turnout of young California voters, according to a report by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

But VoteCrew appeared up to the task. Of the 1,100 participants who signed on, about 24 percent reported that they fulfilled their promise to vote. That was three times the typical rate for young Californians in November 2014.
The success inspired Lubin and Strive Technology co-creator Adrian Del Balso to reach even higher.

“The grassroots movement and local organizing, or medium-sized nonprofits, they just tend to look at tech as this big scary vortex that’s way too expensive,” Del Balso said.

“VoteCrew is a testament to the fact that you can do things on a small budget … and do these really powerful things. It’s never been easier to build really tactical, clever tools like this.”

They decided to redouble their efforts and come back with an even better site for the 2018 midterms. In the meantime, their success caught the attention of The Voter Participation Center, which granted VoteCrew $100,000 to improve and expand.

The Voter Participation Center’s entire focus is on supporting a functioning democracy, said Lionel Dripps, managing director for program and digital. That only works when voters reflect the makeup of the country, he said.

VoteCrew impressed The Voter Participation Center with its strategy of engaging young people by holding them accountable to each other.

“From our research we know that that is an important element of increasing voter turnout,” Dripps said.

Of course, VoteCrew’s June primary performance may just be symptomatic of a widespread vigor for voting right now. More than 19 million voters have signed up, according to California’s secretary of state, an increase of nearly 1.5 million from the 2014 midterm election.

Of the Bay Area’s 3.9 million residents who have registered so far, more than 1.1 million of them are age 18 to 35 — that’s nearly 28 percent of all registered voters, according to the secretary of state’s figures.

But it still remains to be seen just how effective VoteCrew will be, Dripps said.

“We as an organization really care about measurable outcomes,” he said. “So part of the work we’re doing is trying to figure out is, how can we evaluate the success of a tool like VoteCrew?”

There’s no doubt that VoteCrew is already capturing young people’s attention. As of Oct. 10, the platform enrolled 2,256 members in 308 teams across 30 campuses — and not just in California.

“Seeing VoteCrew spontaneously pop up in areas as far flung as Miami and Nebraska is pretty cool for us,” Lubin said.