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November 06, 2018 03:22 PM

University of Michigan student Eliza Laramee, 21, grew up in a suburb of Detroit where politics “wasn’t something we talked about much,” she tells PEOPLE. Now a college senior, Laramee found her political voice following Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which inspired her to join Planned Parenthood’s activism branch and commit to Get Out the Vote.

But not all young voters are like Laramee. A new study conducted by NBC News and GenForward found that out of the 1,8881 adults between 18- and 34-years-olds they interviewed, less than one-third say they will “definitely” vote in the midterm elections, 23 percent say they are uncertain, 12 percent say they will probably not vote and 7 percent say they will definitely not vote.

So, as voting is underway nationwide, the question on many minds remains: Are young voters showing up at the polls?

While candidates have spent recent months Instagramming and tweeting to get college students and recent graduates, among others, to the polls, research organizations have been publishing a slew of studies to gauge young voters’ turnout in Tuesday’s election.

These results of the NBC-GenForward study, which suggest low turnout among young voters, are not out of the ordinary: Historically, young voter turnout in midterm elections has stood around 20 to 25 percent, according to The New York Times. The NBC-GenForward study suggests that this year may be no different: 58 percent of respondents in the study said that they have “some,” “very little” or “no” interest in following news about elections.

Zaneeta Daver, the director of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which works with colleges and universities to increase the number of civically engaged students, tells PEOPLE that low voter turnout among college students may be as a result of poor execution, as opposed to a problem related to intention.

“(Students) may say that they are going to vote, but then when push comes to shove with all the different priorities … they may not show up even though they have the intention to show up,” Daver says.

Dewi Zarni, 19, a sophomore at Barnard College majoring in American studies, also believes that low turnout among college students has little to do with their desire to vote.

“I definitely think the consensus is that voting is good, but I also think college is a hard transition. … People definitely want to do it, but maybe don’t get it together,” she tells PEOPLE, adding that figuring out how to send in absentee ballots is “one of the biggest roadblocks” to voting that she has noticed among her peers.

Not all researchers agree that young voters will underperform in 2018. Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics’ biannual survey of 18- to 29-year-olds suggests that this age group is more likely to vote in the 2018 midterm elections than in 2014 or 2010. The report found that 40 percent of respondents said they will “definitely vote” in the midterms.

“I do think there is a lot of activism and I do think that when people say groups are going to vote in unprecedented numbers in this election, I do think that is going to be the case,” Daver says.

Like many young people across the country, Morgan Awner, a sophomore at Brown University, spent her summer working on a political campaign. The 19-year-old served as Rep. Aaron Regunberg’s field organizer for Providence in Rhode Island’s Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, in what she calls an “insane crash-course in elections.” Now, Awner is involved with Brown’s Democrats club and has declared a major in public policy.

For the young voters who do cast their ballots on Tuesday, their choice in candidates may vary. But the NBC-GenForward study found that among the voters most likely to vote, the highest percentage of respondents said that “someone who shares their values” is the most important quality in a candidate. Among all respondents in the study, the “ability to bring about change” mattered most.

When PEOPLE asked students directly about what issues matter most to them, answers ranged from the environment to women’s rights to criminal justice reform.

Environmental policy is the most important issue to David Adler, 21, a senior at the University of Michigan studying business.

“The environment is something that is very important to me but also, every single person can relate to that. It’s a shame that it’s become so partisan,” he said. 

For Laramee, “women’s issues and women’s health” spur both her political activism and her vote.

Zarni, on the other hand, is focused on “criminal justice reform and how the system that we have now works to perpetuate a lot of existing inequalities.”

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