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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Young adults form the largest bloc of newly registered voters on LI. But will they vote?

This is the application for an absentee ballot

This is the application for an absentee ballot in Nassau County. Credit: Newsday / William Perlman

"There's always so much written about how young people don't vote," Joshua Lafazan, who, at 26, is the youngest lawmaker in the Nassau County Legislature, said last week.

"No one writes much about how young people could vote," he said.

Demographically, Millennials and Gen Z (aka Zoomers) are part of the largest, most educated and most diverse generation in the nation.

"We could be a powerhouse," Lafazan said, "if we make voting a lifelong passion, a lifelong activity."

Statistics from the Nassau and Suffolk boards of election on new voter registrations offer a glimpse of that potential.

Although the counties sort age groups differently, young people between the ages of 18 and 34 represented the largest group of new voter registrations this year.

In Suffolk, 41,483 young people between 18 and 29 registered; in Nassau, there were a total of 37,555 new registrations in the age categories of 18-24 and 25-35.

The numbers do not address whether the young people had been registered elsewhere, or whether they had voted before.

A large number of young people registered as "blanks" — that is, as voters who opted not to join any political party.

In Suffolk, blanks accounted for the largest number of young voter registration, at 15,621. Democrats came in second, at 14,428, and Republicans, third, at 9,434, out of the county's total of 85,954 new registrations.

In Nassau, Democrats pulled the most registrations from young people — 15,297 — with blanks coming in a close second, at 13,268, and Republicans third, with 7,699 out of the county's total 67,334 new registrations.

Why so many blanks?

Lafazan, a blank since winning his first election, in 2012, to the Syosset school board at age 18, said, "I think there is a consistent frustration because of the paralysis that we can see in our politics."

A better alternative, he said, "is finding solutions and finding consensus" to address issues of concern, such as climate change, to Millennials and Zoomers.

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, agreed.

"For young people, climate and the environment and other issues are real and immediate concerns because they're going to be around for the next 50 years," Levy said. "That's not true for a lot of the rest of us."

Anita Katz, Suffolk's Democratic elections commissioner, said it's not uncommon to see a jump in registrations among young people in presidential election years.

But this year seems different, Katz said.

"We used to get calls from parents saying, 'Hi, we got an absentee ballot sent to our son and he lost it and can you send another?" she said.

Not this year.

"Now, we're getting calls from parents saying, 'Hey, did you get my ballot and can you check on my children Henry's and Linda's too?,'" Katz said.

"High school kids who turned 18 are home, college kids are home, they're seeing and hearing from parents about voting, about going to vote and there's a high, high degree of interest on all [political] sides this year," she said.

Indeed, the pandemic is one of many elements making 2020 different from 2016.

Protests in the aftermath of George Floyd's death in police custody in Minneapolis in May sent legions of young people into Nassau and Suffolk streets, indeed into streets around the world, to protest.

Then, of course, there's the generations' expert use of social media.

"They are finding that they can have a voice and make a difference," said Jillian Weston, president of The Unicorn Network, a Long Island organization for "entrepreneurial millennials" that Weston established in 2016. (She's working on a Manhattan chapter.)

Weston said social-media interactions — i.e. likes and follows on Instagram and Twitter — validate "their point of view, their opinions, their thoughts, and is driving them to use their voice and to feel confident in their decisions to make change," Weston said.

Even then, there are some generational differences between Millennials and Zoomers, as Weston, 31, pointed out.

"We were told, don't talk about politics.' We were not validated in our homes, so we felt our opinions did not matter, or they had to be hidden," she said.

Lafazan, born in1994, who is on the cusp of the Zoomer generation, said to have begun in 1995 or 1996, sees differences too.

"I have interns three years younger than me and they tease me because I'm not on TikTok," he said.

Just because young people registered in large numbers this year, however, doesn't mean they actually will vote, Levy pointed out.

Even though, according to national polls, a consolidated youth vote could make a difference — even on Long Island.

"Young people in suburbs tend to register as Democrats, and stay as Democrats," he said. "If they voted, they would begin to change the dynamics in a purple place like Long Island, making it bluer and bluer as the years go by."

Lafazan, who caucuses with Democrats in the Legislature, acknowledged the lack of sustained turnout by younger voters.

But, he believes there's some chance this year could be different.

"The pandemic," he said, "has impacted not just how they see the world, but how they view government."

Even then, he said, an increased turnout in one year wouldn't be enough.

"Young people need to turn out for county elections, for state elections," he said. "Then we can make a difference."

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