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Net neutrality faces its own election challenge in heated midterms

It may fire up some young voters, but they've got plenty of other fish to fry.

Sarah Tew/CNET

High-school senior Evan Scully has one main issue he's focused on this political season: bringing back net neutrality protections.

The 17-year-old political activist from rural North Carolina has been working on social media campaigns to organize online protests, as well as getting people to contact their congressional representatives to voice concern about the Federal Communications Commission's repeal of the open internet rules.


Evan Scully, 17, may not be old enough to vote, but he's been working to make net neutrality an issue in the 2018 midterm elections.

Evan Scully

He joined a group of volunteers teaming with the grassroots group Fight for the Future, working the phones and sending emails and letters to key Republicans in the lead-up to the Senate's vote on the Congressional Review Act petition to nullify the FCC repeal. The group declared victory in the first battle of this fight when the measure narrowly passed the Senate in May, winning the votes of Republicans John Kennedy of Louisiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine.

Scully started his activism in 2016 after taking a civics class during his sophomore year of high school, where he got interested in politics. As he started reading the news more often, he saw the controversy developing around the Republican-led FCC's repeal of net neutrality regulations, which were designed to prevent large internet service providers from blocking or slowing internet access or prioritizing their own services over rival offerings.

Scully knew he needed to get involved.

"I just thought people weren't paying as much attention to this issue as they should be," he said. "So I thought I should do everything I can to promote this issue."  

With less than a week to go now before the midterm elections, one of the biggest questions is whether younger voters will show up at the polls. Democrats have seized on net neutrality as an issue to get them to vote. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, has said the net neutrality issue could excite and mobilize a sliver of the electorate in a way that's reminiscent of how the National Rifle Association has mobilized voters to passionately protect Second Amendment rights.

"It may not be as important to 60 percent of the public," Schatz said in an interview last year. "But we want it to be really important for 10 or 15 million people. And they will become single-issue voters about the internet. That is an incredibly powerful force. Just ask the NRA."

But even if Democrats see historically large numbers of younger voters turning out in this election, there are skeptics who say it's unlikely the majority of them will be as motivated by net neutrality as Scully is.

"While some have claimed that net neutrality will be a defining wedge issue for the 2018 midterms and an effective means to activate millennials, there is little evidence that it will measurably affect votes," Roslyn Layton, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an outspoken critic of the 2015 net neutrality rules, wrote in a report analyzing tech policy and the midterm elections. "The audience for tech policy is relatively small, though it is growing along with the tech economy."

Net neutrality and the CRA

The fight to preserve Obama-era net neutrality rules has become highly politicized, with Democrats in Congress and many internet companies, such as Google, Mozilla and Facebook, strongly voicing their support. A majority of the public also supports net neutrality.

Meanwhile, Republicans have sided with internet service providers, like Verizon and Comcast, and generally oppose the rules, saying the regulations are too restrictive and hurt innovation and investment.

The Republican-led FCC voted in December to roll back the rules, which officially came off the books in June.

In an effort to preserve the rules, Democrats in Congress have tried to use a legislative tool called the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress a limited window in which to undo regulation -- in this case, to restore the rules. Senate Democrats scored an unexpected victory in May, when they got three Republicans to cross party lines and support their resolution to invoke the CRA and shut down the repeal. The vote was 52-47.

Now playing: Watch this: Beer helps explain battle brewing over net neutrality

The effort still has a long way to go, though. It has to get through the Republican-controlled House, which has until the end of this Congress to pass it. Then it has to be signed by President Donald Trump, who's made eliminating regulation a cornerstone of his presidency.

After the Senate victory, Democrats declared net neutrality to be one leg of a three-legged strategy to excite young voters ahead of the midterm election. Three issues -- internet access, gun control and marijuana legalization -- are supposed to coax the young to the polls.

"Contact your Republican senator," Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said in a speech before the vote in May. "See who votes for net neutrality and who votes against. And let them know how you feel about the way they voted."

But Republicans have been skeptical of this strategy. Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, has called the CRA effort an "exercise in futility." He said in an interview with CNET in May that he didn't think Democrats' plan to motivate young voters with net neutrality would work.

"When you get outside the organized phone campaigns and groups ginning this up, it doesn't resonate with average people," Thune said. "Most people vote their pocketbooks and economic issues."

The millennial vote

Layton said it's unclear whether the Democratic effort will work. But she said it's smart for them to "recognize that millennials are an important constituency, given their size as a demographic block."

Indeed, younger voters are likely the key to Democrats winning back the House and possibly getting a majority in the Senate, according to the Brookings Institute. Though older boomers may have outnumbered millennials two years ago, those numbers are shifting. An estimated 8 million more Americans will be able to vote in this election than were eligible in 2016.

Many pollsters are expecting a larger than normal turnout of millennial voters in this midterm. A poll this week from the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 18- to 29-year-olds are far more likely to vote in Tuesday's election than they were in 2010 and 2014. Forty percent of those polled said they would "definitely vote" in the midterms.

"We are definitely seeing some signs and signals that this is an unusual midterm year," said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at Circle, aka the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, at Tufts University, which researches young Americans' political engagement. "Young people are seeing other young people involved. There is more engagement happening, and outreach."


Democrats hope net neutrality will help excite young voters in the midterm elections.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Kiesa said, though, that when young people do come out to vote in large numbers, it's rarely the result of any single issue or ballot measure like the legalization of same-sex marriage or marijuana legalization. What really makes the difference in getting them to vote, she said, is providing basic information, like how and where to vote, and how to obtain an absentee ballot. Since a lot of voters in this demographic are first-time voters, they often need a lot more hand-holding through the process.

"We see the most success in states where there's been an investment in outreach," Kiesa said. "There's no magic dust or anything. You just have to be out there."

The issues: More than just net neutrality

In July a survey from IMGE Insights found that 60 percent of voters, polled in four battleground districts in California, Colorado, Florida and New York, said they'd be more likely to vote for their representative if he or she supported restoring net neutrality protections through the CRA.

The poll also found that 58 percent of undecided voters were more likely to vote for lawmakers who would protect net neutrality.

In May, just after the Senate passed the CRA, a survey from Morning Consult/Politico found that 59 percent of Democrats polled said their support for net neutrality was somewhat or very important to them as they head to the polls.

But a lot has happened between May and November, from the divisive hearings on Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination to the pipe-bomb arrest and the murder of 11 members of a Pittsburgh synagogue. And it seems that other issues are likely drowning out net neutrality.

Results published earlier this month from a survey by the polling company Socialsphere found that the top priorities among 14- to 29-year-olds are gun control, access to higher education and health care reform. Net neutrality wasn't mentioned.

But Schatz said net neutrality is likely to be part of a suite of issues young voters care about.

"We've seen a growing uptick in enthusiasm among young people the last few weeks and months," Schatz said in an interview this week. "We think we'll have better turnout among millennials than we've had in many midterm cycles."

He added he still believes net neutrality is a big motivator for these voters, even if it's not their main reason for heading to the polls.

Scully, who'll turn 18 in December and won't be eligible to vote in this election, acknowledges there are many important issues in this election, like health care, the environment and education. But he said that how candidates stack up on net neutrality will ultimately influence how he votes.

"Net neutrality affects the ability for people at large to participate in democracy," Scully said. "It's all about protecting the dissemination of information, which is what allows them to make informed decisions."

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