Gen Z, Millennial voters embrace activism and voting, as youth turnout surges ahead of Election Day

October 29, 2020 at 11:10 AM EDT


Brianna Campbell, a 23-year-old public health student in Milwaukee, remembers feeling a little uneasy about posting on social media in 2016 about politics and voting: It wasn’t popular to be vocal about those topics then.

But now, she’s inundated with texts and social media posts from friends reminding her to vote. Climate change, racial justice, access to affordable health care, and voting in a battleground state are all regular conversation topics for Campbell and her friends.

“It’s become so popular to vote. Everyone posts on Instagram” said Campbell, who voted early. In 2016, “I didn’t want to be the one political person talking about sensitive topics. . . . Now it seems like everybody talks about it, and everybody is willing to share what they believe.”

Major social movements driven by young activists around climate change, gun safety, and Black Lives Matter protests have led to an explosion of civic awareness among younger Americans, who are on track to turn out to vote in record numbers this election and could play a pivotal role in some key battleground states.

Data on early voters and recent polling suggest eligible voters under 30 could break their historic 2008 turnout when it peaked at 48 percent when Barack Obama was elected. New data suggest they may be on track to sustain their dramatic turnout in the 2018 midterms when they more than doubled their rate of voting compared to the prior midterm election.

The higher early turnout is somewhat expected, given the particularly low turnout by young voters in 2016 and the overall surge in interest in alternative voting options because of the novel coronavirus. But it underscores the many ways that this typically unreliable voting bloc has been galvanized into greater political and electoral engagement, and is especially noteworthy given the unique barriers to voting during a pandemic that has displaced many of them from their homes or college campuses, researchers say.

“It’s the physical and economic dislocation of covid. It was the protests after George Floyd. It’s climate change and the fires we’ve seen. It’s the aftermath of all the good work that was done after Parkland by the gun-safety movement,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN, who has been tracking youth turnout.

“All of these things, together with a visceral distrust of the president, has created a perfect storm for what could be historic levels of youth turnout this year.”

Youth organizers from both parties say their generation is ripe for heightened civic awareness, as Americans whose formative years were shaped by national trauma. They were born a few years before 9/11, grew up during the 2008 Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street protests highlighting economic inequality, and reached voting age as cultural icons embraced political activism, including sports stars like Colin Kaepernick and Naomi Osaka.

“We are Gen Z — born into tragedy and movements and protests,” said Maxwell Frost, 23, national organizing director for March for Our Lives, the anti-gun violence movement formed by survivors of the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

Frost said the young organizers’ goal is to foster a civically engaged generation that not only votes in massive numbers but plays a pivotal role in holding the White House and congressional leaders accountable. They feel emboldened by the work of young liberal leaders, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), in pushing a more liberal agenda.

“Young people are stubborn as hell and we’re going to use that to get what we want. Our fight is not over after Election Day,” Frost said. “We’re not like a campaign, where after Election Day we take a long break and we’re done. We’re still here, and we’re still going to be fighting.”

new national poll released this week by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School showed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s lead among young voters has increased in recent months, with about 63 percent of likely voters ages 18 to 29 saying they support Biden, compared to the 25 percent supporting President Trump.

Some conservative organizers say Trump has been a galvanizing force for young Republicans, too. Jake Hoffman, the 29-year-old president of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans, said every time Trump or his family members come to town for a rally, Hoffman sees members of his organization not only attending but volunteering with the campaign or working as political organizers.

Under Trump, conservative social media influencers have gained hundreds of thousands of more followers. The coronavirus lockdowns have mobilized many of Hoffman’s peers, who are frustrated with being stuck at home and unable to work, he said.

He and his peers believe there are injustices in the criminal justice system but do not believe violent protests are the solution, he said. Hoffman is personally passionate about the environment, particularly addressing climate change, and wishes that the national GOP leaders would prioritize the issue.

“Most people in our organization are environmentalists. They’re conservatives. They want to see something done about it. Unfortunately, it’s not something that the upper echelon of our party has listened to,” he said. “I’m doing what I can to try to bring it back to the ethos of Republican politics. We do a bad job of owning that entire subject matter.”

Some young voters casting their ballot for the first time said they felt emotional about the chance to weigh in against a deeply polarizing president whose policies they view as detrimental to their future.

“There’s a lot of meaning behind it to me. It seems simple, you’re just filling out a piece of paper, but for me, it involves years of trauma and so much action,” said Ivette Sosa, a 19-year-old in Mesa, Ariz., who dropped off her ballot on Monday for Biden.

As a daughter of undocumented immigrants, Sosa said she has spent the past four years fearing that her parents may be deported. The rush of early voting, especially among Latino voters, was “really empowering,” Sosa said.

“I’ve seen a lot of conversations on Twitter or in my classes or between my friend groups, and it’s just amazing to see how much more woke, you could say, and engaged young Latinx voters are,” Sosa said.

That enthusiasm, especially among Latino voters, is especially noteworthy in Texas, which has seen a dramatic increase in early youth turnout.

Since the last presidential election, an estimated 800,000 young Latino Americans have turned 18. As of 11 days from Election Day, voters under 30 had already cast almost two-thirds as many early votes in Texas as they did in the 2016 presidential election, according to research by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and Catalyst, a Democratic data firm.

Drew Galloway, executive director of the nonpartisan youth voter turnout group MOVE Texas, said his group is “helping new voters understand that civic life is a cycle: protest, testify, vote, back out to protest, back out to testify, back out to vote.”