Roe v. Wade ruling could bring Brevard youth off political sidelines into the 2022 polls

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Ella Barrial hasn't spent a lot of time thinking about politics. She's never been to a rally before, she said.

Last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade is what finally got the 17-year-old Rockledge High School student off the couch and into the streets.

"I think it was the fact that it, like, personally affected me and my friends, and also the women in my life, anyone with a uterus," said Barrial, who stood among the crowd of abortion-rights protestors, chanting and waving signs Sunday at the west end of the Eau Gallie Causeway.

"I was just like, this is not okay."

Like Barrial, many of the young people who spoke to FLORIDA TODAY Sunday said it was their first time being politically active. Others say they are seeing friends, ones who have never before shown an interest in politics, talk about what they can do to get involved.

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It's been only a few days since the historic and controversial decision that eliminated the federal right to abortion and passions are high. But already there are signs it could prove a catalyst for a new wave of engagement among a group of young Americans that historically have sat on the sidelines.

And in Brevard County, as elsewhere, there are hopes among Democrats upset by the ruling that the energy will carry through to November and mark a turning point at the polls.

There is no doubt a segment of Brevard's youth have mobilized in the immediate aftermath of Roe's demise.

Two abortion-rights demonstrations in Melbourne Sunday each drew around 100 people, many of them high-school and college age. Brevard Democratic Party staffers have also been fielding more calls, emails and social media posts about the issue, according to Democratic state committeeman Sanjay Patel, many from young people lamenting the move or looking for ways to help out.

"I know a lot of them, as soon as the decision came out, they wanted to know if there were things organized, and it looks like they started self-organizing as well," Patel said. "I do think it has energized at least the young folks, which is traditionally hard to do."

High-profile social issues have been a major driver in youth engagement in recent election years, according to a May report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

In 2018, young people aged 18-24 who were involved in the gun violence prevention movement after the school shooting in Parkland were more likely to vote than their peers, center researchers found. The same was true in the wake of the social justice movement after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the report said.

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While overall voter turnout was up in both years, engagement among young people rose by more than 10 percentage points in both 2018 and 2020, outpacing that of older groups, the center reported.

"Many youth are especially concerned about issues of equal rights, gender equity, and racial justice — and they view abortion as one such issue," the report said.

Like prior years, the fight over abortion rights this election season could be one that pulls in more than just the usual lineup of activists. There are already signs that is happening in Brevard.

Connor McCarthy, 23, son of FLORIDA TODAY Space Editor John McCarthy, has been engaged with politics for a while, he said. Not so for some his friends. But the Supreme Court decision seemed to shake something loose Friday, he said.

"A lot of my friends, people I have talked to, they're expressing more interest in it now," McCarthy said. "They feel something is wrong now, so they're more inclined to go out and vote."

Miranda Houston, 18, echoed a similar sentiment at the Eau Gallie demonstration Sunday. A supporter of abortion rights for several years, she said, "I've already seen a lot of young people that I've never really seen before be active in politics coming out. They're posting about it, they're speaking out."

Houston's companion, 17-year-old Jordan Barlow, was a case in point. Barlow, who said she had never been involved in politics before Sunday, said she was moved to action by the Supreme Court decision, which left her "heartbroken."

"I work with kids, and I was just, like, speechless. It was so terrible," Barlow said. "I had been wanting (to get involved) for a while, and I just finally had the chance to do it."

Some local Democrats are hopeful the issue could spur a higher turnout in November among those qualified to vote, one which could make a difference in contested races.

Anthony Yantz, the Democratic challenger for the Florida House District 33 seat currently held by Republican State Rep. Randy Fine, helped to organize Sunday's rally. While he said he was "not excited" the event was necessary, he was encouraged by the number of younger faces in the crowd.

He felt the ruling might also bring out older voters who have fallen away from politics in recent years for one reason or another.

"I think (the abortion-rights issue) is going to drag a lot of people out of their houses to vote that might otherwise have given up on the voting process," Yantz said.

For Patel, the energy surrounding abortion rights feels "different" than around other issues, such as the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, he said. "I anticipate that this might be what really turns these midterms in our favor," Patel said.

A rally to protest the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was held at 11:00am Sunday at Triangle Park on the west side of Eau Gallie Causeway in Melbourne.
A rally to protest the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was held at 11:00am Sunday at Triangle Park on the west side of Eau Gallie Causeway in Melbourne.

Despite the present fervor, some have doubts it will be enough to turn the tide.

Josiah Gattle, chair of the Space Coast Young Republicans, said enthusiasm among Republicans heading into November is already high, and the Roe decision was a major victory for conservatives that could push engagement even higher.

"How much this amps it up? I imagine it does, I just couldn't tell you how much," Gattle said. "If you're already at 10, does this go to 11? 10-and-a-half?"

While the issue will probably lead to a higher voter turnout, Gattle said, he didn't think it would be enough to turn any close races in Brevard.

"Maybe a few more people show up for both sides, and that's always a good thing to have more people involved," he said, "but I don't think it changes anything."

Christopher Muro, a political science professor at Eastern Florida State College, said that while some movements have sustained enough momentum to impact elections, others fizzle before they can make a real difference.

"In the immediate aftermath, yes, there's a lot of energy and intensity, and a lot of media focus, but those things dissipate," Muro said.

"Abortion and the fight over it is not a new issue," he said.

Eric Rogers is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Rogers at 321-242-3717 or esrogers@floridatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter @EricRogersFT.

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: End of Roe v. Wade could bring out new Brevard young voters