Young people, particularly Generation Z (ages 18-29) could be poised to greatly influence the 2020 election. If, that is, they get out there and vote.
Historically, the youth vote has been sporadic at best, leaving older and even elderly Americans to determine political races. And these voters’ priorities often don’t benefit the younger generations.
The 2016 Turnout Was Pivotal
Times seem to be changing for the youth voting block. In the 2016 elections, young people actually drove turnout increases, according to US Census data. Nearly 36% of 18-29-year-olds reported voting, which sounds paltry, but is actually a 16% leap from 2014. In addition to that overall increase, voters were much more motivated to be politically active in urban areas, with 54% of citizens exercising their civic right.
So, if this upward trend holds, voting behavior experts like the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald expect the youth vote to be an enormous influence, overriding other groups in terms of enthusiasm and increase. The younger voters tend to be more urban and ethnically diverse, which drives up participation.
“Everyone’s turnout tends to go up” in a surge election year, “but the increases predominantly come from the lower-turnout groups because they have more room to increase,” McDonald told The Atlantic. If turnout is high in 2020 overall, “you would think … that these younger people, persons of color, lower-educated, lower-income people … are the people who are going to see the highest turnout increase of all the groups we observe.”
Other experts agree.
“Building upon the historic impact of the youth vote in the midterm election, we will continue to see this generation step up, take action, and ensure their voices are accounted for in our elections,” Mark Gearan, director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics predicted to USA Today.
How to Encourage Youth to Vote: Education
If you come from a politically active family, then voting is usually socially ingrained. But, it turns out many young people of voting age simply don’t understand the voting process. It’s similar to how they don’t know how to use a rotary phone or mail an actual letter; there’s no point in making fun of them, you just need to teach them.
Take, for instance, Rock the Vote and Teaching Tolerance’s Democracy Class, launched at this time last year. In the past, public schools offered civics classes where kids learned the basics of voting and citizenship, but budget cuts eviscerated these long ago.
“Today, only nine states require a full year of civics education,” Rock the Vote told The Washington Post. “Ten states don’t require it at all. In 31 states, students only have to learn about our democracy for one semester. That’s about three and a half months to learn about something as important as our democracy.”
And low-income minority students get the shorter end of the stick.
“A mere 25% of high school students achieved a grade of sufficient on a national civics assessment test,
Rock the Vote stated. “Black and Latino kids from low-income households do significantly worse on the test than their white, middle-class peers. In other words, those who are most in need of advocating for resources are the least prepared to do so.”
A program like this concludes with getting the students to pre-register (or register if they’re of age) to vote, thus making it even easier to get to the polls when election day arrives.
Unique Concerns Make Youth Even More Vital
Generation Z is young and likely to be on the planet a lot longer than the Baby Boomers who have dominated the vote for decades. Having more skin in the game means younger voters are interested in policies that take a longer-term interest in their, and the planet’s, welfare.
One interesting trend, taken from a Harvard study on capitalism, found a growing number of 18-29-year-olds were skeptical that capitalism, at least in its current form, was good for them.
According to the site The Conversation, ‘A follow-up focus group to the Harvard study concluded that many of these young people feel that “capitalism was unfair and left people out despite their hard work.”
A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center found 71% of those 18-34 years of age perceive strong conflicts between the rich and the poor in American society. A majority of young people said they believe those with means got there because “they know the right people or were born into wealthy families.”
When more deeply researched, however, Generation Z’s distrust of capitalism becomes more nuanced. Ultimately, they’d appreciate government support and incentives for employee-owned companies.
“So these polls in a way suggest young people don’t want less capitalism, they want more of it,” The Conversation explained. “They just want to make sure it’s shared more broadly, such as by making it easier for more of us to become capitalists and share in the wealth we collectively create.”
A Harvard poll was conducted online between March 8 and March 20, 2019 and surveyed 3,022 respondents. It found that long-range concerns dominate the youth electorate.
Forty-six percent said they agreed with the statement that government should “do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth,” while 16% disagreed with the statement. Four years ago, 32% of young voters agreed and 23% disagreed with the statement.
In addition, 34% of young Americans believe “protecting the environment” should be a top goal of U.S. foreign policy. The environment trails protecting human rights (39%) and preventing the rise of terrorist groups (34%) as foreign policy priorities among youth voters, but is considered more important than preventing the spread of nuclear weapons (29%) and providing humanitarian assistance (19%), the poll found.
These concerns also dovetail with more liberal presidential and congressional candidates.
“It is not crazy to think that youth turnout will be above 50% among people under 30 in 2020,” David Nickerson, a political science professor at Temple University told Bloomberg. “If that ends up being right, then the Democrats are likely to gain a few votes.”
Voter Registration Efforts Are Full-Throttle
Both of the major parties recognize the importance of the youth vote and are implementing voter drives.
For instance, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) launched its multi-million dollar Organizing Corps 2020. This program recruits young people to work with them during the 2020 campaign cycle. Students in the program will be trained and sent into swing states (where the youth vote will truly make a difference for democrats) in an effort to expand the youth electorate.
On the Republican side, the Republican National Committee (RNC) launched a similar program. The Trump Victory Leadership Initiative is designed to train activists to go out and register young voters and organize their communities.
There are also more non-partisan efforts like Rock the Vote. It says it has registered 61,841 people to vote this year, a 60% increase from this time during the last presidential election. This bump in registration is likely due to issues like climate change, gun control legislation and reproductive rights.
“At moments of crisis, we often see young people reacting to tragedy with action, such as organizing and registering their peers to vote,” Jen Tolentino, Rock the Vote’s vice president of innovation and impact told Bloomberg. “It demonstrates young people’s committed being the change they seek and not waiting for older Americans to lead.”
Encouraging Your Young Person to Vote
One of the things you can do as a parent is research the voting rights are in your state. In some states, like California, teens can pre-register to vote at 16, around the time they get their driver’s licenses. Other states, such as Alaska, only let teens register 90 days before they turn 18. This means the moment they turn 18, they’re already registered and ready to vote.
In some states, there’s a registration deadline ranging from 15-30 days before an election. If your youth voter misses that deadline, they still might be able to vote by casting a conditional registration and provisional ballot. Still, it’s better to think ahead and just register or pre-register way before election day.
Want to know what your state is up to in terms of voting? Rock the Vote has a handy page for that; just plug in your state and find out how easy or hard it is to register and keep your registration valid.
Finally, point out to your teen that while politics might seem irrelevant, the politicians who get voted in will have an impact on their lives for years. Issues like student loan payment reform, climate change, gun control, health care, and social security will play front-and-center earlier rather than later.
Some teens are ready for action, like Los Angeles based Elle Nicoletti, 17. Turning 18 is just the start of elevated political activism.
“Well, obviously I’ll be able to vote in the upcoming election, which is definitely a big plus,” Nicoletti tells Parentology. “I believe people start to take you a bit more seriously as well, as, for the first time, your voice matters in terms of voting.”