Generation Z, often branded a generation glued to screens and addicted to our phones, have also proven ourselves to be a powerful group of young people, exemplified through mass climate actions in the past, and now, immense mobilizations following George Floyd’s death. As a generation, we have proven willing to take to the streets to fight for the issues that matter to us, and unwilling to be bogged down by the systems we disagree with. With an incredibly important upcoming election, many are wondering about the willingness of youth to take this energy to the polls. It is important that youth take their momentum from protests and direct action to the voting booth, despite many young peoples’ fears that their vote does not matter in our electoral system.
There are many historical reasons that youth are unlikely to vote. Studies show that, compared to other generations, youth face many unique challenges to make it to the voting booth, and that these challenges directly correlate to issues of education and race. Some of these challenges include being too busy or out of town on Election Day, problems with voter ID, and not being able to travel to the polls. However, central to both young people with and without college experience is the issue of candidates– 65% of youth have chosen not to vote because they didn’t like the candidates or issues on the table. This problem is easy to trace in the American political sphere– liberal youth activists tend to have more radical ideas than mainstream politicians, and are not afraid to share their demands with political candidates. Unfortunately, youth disapproval of mainstream candidates has led to a lack of voting, as youth often feel our voices and demands are not valued in these spaces.
Protesting and Momentum
Despite an often lackluster showing at the polls, youth are unafraid to use our voices in other avenues, such as in direct action and protest. The recent resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests have been widely organized and attended by youth, such as protests taking place in Southern Maine, which are organized by teenagers. Youth often feel that by disrupting the status quo, and asking for large-scale change in our own communities, we are doing more important work than electing uninspiring candidates. Previously, climate activists in organizations like the Sunrise Movement have organized school-disrupting strikes, sit-ins, and other actions to draw direct attention to the climate crisis. In doing so, they have directly called on elected officials to do better, and focused on building momentum in order to engage more youth and push back against the systems currently running our country.
Another reason youth often feel unexcited to vote is skepticism about the legitimacy of the electoral process. This anti-establishment thread can be traced through many youth actions and ideas, and has led to disbelief in the value of a vote. Likely, the outcome of the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, made youth feel even more as if their votes did not count, and that other efforts were likely to have a more direct effect. General flaws within American democracy, such as inconsistent separation of powers, the unfairness of the Electoral College, and increased, hateful polarization, have also made youth feel their efforts are best focused elsewhere. However, the sentiment of a worthless vote is shifting, and 2018 youth engagement in the midterm elections was at an all-time high. Some hope that this will only continue to rise in the important 2020 election, in which many youths feel that increasingly urgent issues are at stake in the outcome of the presidency.
Why Voting Matters
In order to create lasting change, and influence the Democratic establishment, it is crucial that youth vote, both in the 2020 election and beyond, in addition to protesting and other actions. Already, the influence of youth voters and progressives in the 2020 primary have influenced major political players, such as Joe Biden, to adopt more progressive plans. Youth want to see more actions like this, in order to feel as if our opinions and views are valued, in turn creating more buy-in for voting as youth-forward candidates show up on ballots. If policymakers can adapt and accept youth demands, they are likely to see more support among this important age group. Without these compromises, youth will likely stick to current actions, and disregard elections moving forward. In addition to compromise from policymakers, it is crucial that youth take it upon themselves to use their voices in this way, which can help influence major political players and shift conversations toward the solutions youth wish to see.
How To Increase The Youth Vote
In order to increase youth voting numbers in the upcoming election, adults and youth allies need to work harder to break down the barriers many face in voting by having conversations about confusing parts of the process, providing rides to the polls, and assisting with steps like voter registration. Adults should discuss this election with the youth in their lives in order to overcome these issues, and engage more deeply on the issues. Politicians should work harder to listen to and accommodate youth demands and take stances on key issues that excite and engage young voters. In order to engage this energy-filled generation, it is important adults are willing to take us seriously, and work alongside us to create the change we see as vital in this country.