Some people want to target millennials to sell them hipster apparel or artisanal food. Jennifer Hill of Hoboken, N.J., wants to get them to vote.
A lawyer who has worked on political campaigns, Hill is the founder of WeVoteByMail.org, a nonprofit voting project aimed squarely at people born in the 1980s and early 1990s. The campaign’s centerpiece is an informational website, designed in millennial-aesthetic, that “re-imagines the polling place” and displays Instagram-worthy images of open roads and sunset silhouettes. “It’s not red, white and blue,” Hill explains. “That’s intentional.”
The goal? Grab the attention of Gen Y and make it as easy as possible for them to vote by mail — or even get on the rolls in the first place. The streamlined site guides users to their state’s mail-in ballot request or register-to-vote forms, in as few clicks as needed. When it comes to millennials, “there is a lot of confusion about registering to vote, and a lot of delusions with the state of democracy, and also with the electoral college,” Hill says. “They feel that their votes don’t count.”
[Related: The Story Exchange’s “100 Years of Power” podcast series on women’s suffrage]
Millennials account for a growing share of the electorate as those in older generations — such as the World War II-era “Greatest generation” — have become infirm or died. In the 2016 presidential election, millennials cast 31.3 millions votes, a steep rise from the 18.4 million votes they cast in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. But despite the larger size of the millennial generation, the millennial vote has yet to eclipse the Gen X vote.
While millennials and Gen Z have been galvanized in recent months to protest against police brutality, it remains unclear if that activism will translate into record numbers of young people voting. Complicating the situation is Covid-19, which continues to cast a shadow over the 2020 election, and a slowdown in postal delivery due to controversial changes by the postmaster general.
It was the coronavirus that spurred Hill, who by day serves as chief operating officer for a healthtech company, to create WeVoteByMail as a side project. In previous presidential elections, Hill has worked to combat voter suppression, even leaving a law firm position in 2008 to work on Barack Obama’s first campaign. But this year, as the pandemic took hold, she knew that in-person campaign work would be impossible.
“I saw the writing on the wall when we were going into lockdown, and I thought of doing something about voting,” she says. As a member of Generation X, “voting was drilled into me at a younger age by my parents.” Young people today, she believes, don’t feel that same sense of obligation. And while plenty of sites — like Vote.org, for example — provide voter information, Hill didn’t see any skewing to a younger audience that provide “a different view of voting by mail.”
Working with volunteers on a “super-shoestring” budget, she launched the non-partisan WeVoteByMail with the help of the Penn State Pilot Lab. She is working to get the word out via social media promotion and personal networks, and plans to roll out a site in Spanish. While followers are still small, “everyday it gets a little bit bigger,” she says, adding that she predicts interest will pick up in September. “If Covid continues to accelerate and people are in lockdown again, then this message about ‘making anywhere a polling place’ will start to resonate more.”
As for whether she will continue the project after November’s election, she doesn’t yet know the answer. “I’ll tell you on Nov. 4 or 5,” she says. “I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.”
[Related: New Planned Monument Will Honor 3 Prominent Suffragists. It Only Took 100 Years]