Thousands of high school and college students rallied across central Ohio in the spring to protest the lack of a government response to a string of school mass shootings, promising to make elected leaders pay at the polls.

“If the government isn’t going to do something about it, we will,” said a student speaker at a fiery walkout rally at Whetstone High School in Clintonville last March. 

Politicians — particularly those in tight races — might want to start paying attention.

More than 10,000 young people who reside in the hotly contested 12th Congressional District have registered to vote just since mid-February, when the nation’s worst high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, triggered high school and college walkouts and student-registration drives, according to a Dispatch analysis of state voter records.

That’s almost twice the number of 18- to 22-year-old District 12 residents who registered during the same period before the last midterm election in 2014, and 14.4 percent more than leading up to the 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, a headline race in which voter interest is typically higher.

These new voters have swelled the congressional district’s rolls for the 18-22 age group by more than 38 percent since mid-February, when a gunman killed 17 people and injured 17 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. They made up about 29 percent of all new voters registering during that period, compared with about 23 percent in 2014.

“I guess I’m not entirely surprised,” said Paul Beck, Ohio State University political science professor emeritus. “Many of these registration drives, particularly for that group, are focused on college campuses and high schools. ...The (Parkland) school shooting certainly galvanized people who became activists.”

But now that they’re members of the electorate, the big question remains: Will they actually show up to vote?

More than 30,000 young District 12 voters who were eligible to vote in the Aug. 7 special election for the U.S. House seat between Trump-backed GOP candidate Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor sat it out. Balderson eked out a razor-thin victory by just over 1,700 votes, or less than 1 percent, with fewer than 2 out of 10 registered 18- to 22-year-olds casting a vote in the race.

Their participation rate was roughly half that of the district’s 535,000 total registered voters of all ages.

Even among the more than 4,000 young people who registered between mid-February and July 9, and who could have participated in the District 12 special election, less than 31 percent of them actually voted despite the candidates’ stark differences on guns.

In July, O’Connor said the gun issue “cries out for common sense.” He supports “red flag” laws that would allow judges to issue orders for law enforcement to temporarily confiscate guns from individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others while the court considers whether they are a threat.

Balderson said in July he opposed that proposal. “I would not take anybody’s guns,” he said, even if they are found to have a mental-health issue. “If they’re licensed and lawfully allowed to have a gun, we can’t go confiscate it.”

Since the special election, registration surged again among the district’s youngest voters, with almost 5,000 more 18-to-22-year-olds signing up just since late September, including more than 800 on the Oct. 9 deadline alone.

Since July 10, another 6,000-plus young people have registered, almost 1,900 of them from Franklin County, where O’Connor won 65 percent of the vote in the special election. While those new voters registered too late to vote in the special election, they have the green light to vote in the Nov. 6 rematch between Balderson and O’Connor for a full two-year term in the U.S. House.

If they show up, it likely will help Democrats in general: National polls show that young people are much more supportive of Democratic candidates than older voters, particularly college-educated females, Beck said.

“Democrats have focused particularly on that age group,” Beck said. “It makes sense that there would be a ramping up of this while school is in session. ... One would expect those people to vote as Democrats. I suspect young people in the suburbs would fall into the same pattern.”

While District 12 is a gerrymandered GOP stronghold that slices across five mostly rural counties, it cuts into deep-blue Clintonville and the northern suburbs, which provide almost a third of the total registered voters. Almost half of the 10,185 new young voters live in Columbus or one of its seven suburbs: Westerville (1,071); Dublin (951); Powell (743); New Albany (289); Worthington (254); Reynoldsburg (153); and Gahanna (137).

The Ohio Republican Party disagrees that the surge in younger voters favors Democrats, said spokesman Blaine Kelly.

“It’s good news that it looks like more young people are registering to vote,” Kelly said. “The Republicans have done a great job as well at registering young voters.”

The Ohio GOP has made nearly 4 million voter contacts this election cycle statewide, “and a lot of that has to do with younger voters,” Kelly said. 

“We’re always encouraging more participation as well. Our top volunteers most of the time are college students.“

Just since the August special election, the O’Connor campaign, the Ohio Democratic Party and progressive organizations have registered more than 5,000 new voters in the district, including thousands on university campuses, the campaign said in a news release this week.