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Young women engaging in political process over women's issues

By Samantha Kimmey   |   May 9, 2012 at 10:40 AM
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(WOMENSENEWS)-- Staffers at Emily's List, the Washington-based PAC that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, say 2012 is shaping up as a strong year for mobilizing the women's vote.

"The rate at which women are becoming engaged; this is unprecedented growth for Emily's List," said Jessica McIntosh, deputy director of communications. "[Our] new members are the most active we've ever had."

The strong surge of anti-choice bills through state legislatures, she said, is pulling young women in particular. "It's people who thought the birth control debate was over a decade ago."

Other pro-choice activists agree that women in the 18-30 age range--the so-called Millennial generation whose first time voting occurred after 2000--seem energized.

"I think we're seeing unprecedented interest in women's rights on college campuses rights now," said duVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation's Choices Campus Leadership Program and legal coordinator of the National Clinic Access Project. Gaines said "there are not enough chairs in the room" at presentations she's been giving on California campuses about efforts to roll back abortion and contraception access.

Democratic strategists, meanwhile, are courting younger women.

One sign of that came when President Obama "bumped" New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson as this year's commencement speaker for Barnard College, the longstanding women's college in New York City.

Obama Favored

Women between 18 and 49 favor Obama over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney 64 percent to 33 percent, a gaping 31 percent lead, according to a March 2012 Pew Research Center survey. Women in general favor Obama by a smaller 20-point margin, and among young men, Obama enjoyed only a four-point lead.

But telling a pollster you like a candidate and going out to vote are two different things.

If young women do turn out in large numbers this year it will be a big switch from the midterm elections in 2010. In November 2008, the last presidential election cycle, almost 48 percent of all women aged 18-24 voted, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Though midterm elections always see a drop in voting, only 20.6 percent of these women voted in 2010.

Men in the same age group vote less than women; 41 percent in 2008 and a little less than 19 percent in 2010.

Rachel Huff, a self-described Millennial, is the education and outreach coordinator at WV Free, a reproductive and social justice organization in Charleston, W.Va. She said the recent avalanche of state-level anti-choice legislation could have a goading effect on women in her age group.

"Recent attacks on birth control and women's preventive health care [are] a huge priority to Millennial women," said Huff. "If we can turn that frustration into action by empowering Millennial women to vote we'll be able to see the dialogue around women's health issues evolve."

Mobilizing Young Women

In mid-April Huff attended a training session in Huntington, W.Va., designed to mobilize these young women to vote.

The training was provided by Washington-based American Association of University Women, which is spending between $1 million to $1.5 million to target Millenial women, said Director of Policy Lisa Maatz. The group's initiative, It's My Vote: I Will Be Heard, is focused on grassroots voter drives in 15 states. By training people in these states on strategies for spurring young women to vote, the association is hoping to spread its reach as far as possible.

The program is strictly nonpartisan, so Huff's trainers did not mention the growing number of anti-choice state laws. But any effort aimed at a group this heavily skewed in Obama's favor could easily help Democrats.

Huff said her trainers pointed out that although young adults may feel their concerns go unaddressed, there are more Millennials than baby boomers. "We don't realize our own power…[but] people are going to have to pay attention to us," she said.

Obama's 2008 message of hope and change may no longer speak to post-recession Millennials.

Obama has only a seven-point lead over a generic Republican among young voters, according to an April survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University. In 2008, Obama won among 18- to 29-year-olds 66 to 32 percent.

"There is always an issue with second term president, [because] the honeymoon is over," said Gaines of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "Young women know what's at stake . . . they are the ones getting harassed when they go in for their Pap smear at Planned Parenthood."

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