In past election years, lip service has been paid to young voters. It’s assumed that they probably won’t vote in vast numbers, leaving policy in the hands of far older politicians who might have short term goals. And, in this atmosphere of climate change, gun violence, and instability, short term goals don’t benefit young voters at all.
Politicians might have to rethink the youth vote in 2020. The rise of young activists like Greta Thunberg, groups like Zero Hour, and events like March for Our Lives are all spearheaded by very young people. And, they’re all about to turn 18.
So politicians take note: young people will vote. And they will not hesitate to vote out anyone who doesn’t represent their interests.
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 more ethnically diverse, which drives participation up even more.
“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,” predicted Mark Gearan, director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics to USA Today.
Unique Concerns Make the Youth Vote 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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.”
Additionally, 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 that “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 both 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 get out the youth vote 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. It demonstrates young people’s committed being the change they seek and not waiting for older Americans to lead,” said Jen Tolentino, Rock the Vote’s vice president of innovation and impact told Bloomberg.
Start Caring & Listening, or Lose
One of the earmarks of the very young is lots of energy and enthusiasm. Add motivation and organization to the mix, and politicians had better start showing up and answering questions.
Xiye Bastida is a student activist who is about to hit voting age. She’s a member of Fridays for Future and Peoples Climate Movement, plus she’s a 2018 recipient of Spirit of the UN award. That’s a hefty resume for a brief time on the planet, and she has a message for policymakers.
“We have moral authority now because the climate crisis is going to affect future generations the most,” Bastida told Parentology. “And saying you have to listen to me because this is my future and this is our community’s presence. When you say that, you come at them at a different angle, and they have to respond to your questions.”
And if they don’t respond? The youth vote in 2020 might just vote them out of their jobs.