Photo by Lincoln Lute.

young people are protesting, but they need to vote

These youth-led organizations are hoping they can inspire their peers to hit the polls.

by Jazmin Kay
04 November 2019, 4:22pm

Photo by Lincoln Lute.

Last month, the Global Youth Climate Strike made history as nearly 4 million protestors took to the streets, making it the largest climate strike ever. Young people of all ages skipped school and raised their voices to demand action from their government, corporations, and other entities who have not stepped up to address the climate crisis. The strikes demonstrated the swell of youth organizing taking place worldwide.

Young people are more likely to participate in protests than their older counterparts, but they are less likely to vote. Historically, young people have often been the least represented group at the polls. Yet, recent voting trends show that young people could begin to close this gap and start to show up just as strongly in the voting booth as they have been on the streets.

Young voter turnout during the last midterm election reached the highest percentage in over 25 years, with 31% of young people (ages 18-to-29) casting a ballot according to CIRCLE. But upon a closer look, the increase in youth voter turnout was consistent with the increase seen among other age groups, with turnout in 2018 rising substantially. This left the age “turnout gap” between young people and other generations not significantly changed.

Yet, voting impacts our generation perhaps the most of all because the people we vote for get to determine the outcomes of key issues facing Gen Z now and in the future from protecting reproductive rights, gun violence prevention, criminal justice reform, immigration, climate change, and so much more.

“My generation, Generation GND (Green New Deal), are growing up in a time where the political, social, economic, and ecological injustices that have been in practice for centuries have finally reached a tipping point where we are going to be the ones to deal with the dangerous consequences of this status quo,” said Ethan Wright, Advocacy Director at This is Zero Hour, one of the partner organizations of the Global Youth Climate Strike.

The stakes couldn’t be higher right now. Yet, it still remains that the vast majority of young people (69%) sat on the sidelines during the last election and did not vote. But many youth-led movements are determined to connect the dots between youth activism and voting, specifically during off-year local elections, and change this.

Inspiring action
One of the most prominent examples of young people rising to demand action is the gun violence prevention movement, specifically the March for Our Lives. During the 2018 midterm election, the March For Our Lives heavily focused on channeling their outreach to increase youth voter turnout, encouraging their members to hold voter registration drives and host civic engagement efforts. It had an impact: young people who were of voting age and were involved with or at least agreed with the March for Our Lives movement, were 21% more likely to self-report that they voted in the midterm elections according to a 2019 report by CIRCLE. Additionally, the report found that among 18 to 24-year-olds, 43% said that “the Parkland shooting influenced their vote choice for Congress and in local elections at least somewhat, with 20% saying that it affected their decision a lot.”

Linnea Stanton is one of those students who has seen a shift in her peers to become more civically minded as a result of the gun violence prevention movement. Stanton, who hails from Minnesota, is a Regional Director for the Midwest with the March for Our Lives and a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin studying political science.

“Not only are young people doing the heavy lifting in terms of registering and educating young voters, but we’ve helped contribute to a voting shift that is both cultural and spreading across the country,” said Stanton. “There is no question that organizations like March For Our Lives, which are youth-led, have changed the narrative of what it means to vote, how critical it is and that our greatest power is our vote. It's about engaging students, even if they can't vote, to get excited for when they can, and to encourage them to have conversations about civic engagement with their peers and community members.”

Mobilizing voters
While it is easy to make the assumption that the best way to reach Generation Z and millennials is through digital means, a study done by Northwestern University found that the single most effective way to capture young voters is through peer-to-peer connection. What also may make this wave of youth activism different from past generations is its emphasis on the importance of building authentic and longstanding connections and friendships to change outcomes.

“I think relationship building is essential to political and civic engagement. It's what keeps young people coming back to events and their desire to want to play a part in shaping the safe society that we all want,” said Stanton. “Being friends with the people you work with gives you energy, it's motivating. I've seen people, where I go to school, get more involved simply because that's what their friends are doing. That’s cool. When you have strong connections to the issue and people you're fighting for, there is a surge in activity and awareness.”

Another organization that is seizing upon interpersonal connections to foster political and social action is This is Zero Hour, a youth-led organization and intersectional movement of youth activists fighting for climate justice. Wright is one of the leaders working to ensure the organization's work is connected to political transformation.

“The climate justice movement, and Zero Hour, in particular, are true grassroots entities that are rooted in the idea of local, state, and federal civic engagement,” said Wright. “Not only do I believe that the youth are going to the ballot boxes in droves, we are also shifting the political conversation to prioritize climate action and other social justice movements. Whether it be striking, voting, rallying, or lobbying, the youth are going to be heard in the streets and in the voting booths.”

This is Zero Hour has also highlighted voting as a community-building activity with their new campaign #Vote4OurFuture. “We are launching an initiative called #Vote4OurFuture, which youth will encourage family members and friends to vote for the climate in upcoming elections,” said Wright.

Building momentum
While presidential and midterm elections have higher voter turnout, less glamorous local and state elections during odd years are notorious for low voter participation even though the impact these elections can have on young people are massive, from school board elections that determine what students learn to local legislators who can pass municipal laws protecting the environment and our communities. Considering that the last midterm election showed a renewed sense of urgency to vote, will upcoming local elections benefit from this same enthusiasm?

“March For Our Lives has a very active presence in Virginia, where there is a local election this year. We are working tirelessly to engage voters, by registering, educating, and ensuring people turn out on election day,” said Stanton. “We have chapters all over the country focused on any number of electoral races and policies that we hope will make our schools, communities and public spaces safe and free from gun violence.”

With more organizations engaging to increase civic action not just in presidential years, but across all election cycles, there could be a profound difference this year. And it is fair to assume that the youth wave has still not fully come to fruition with many participants not yet of voting age. One way that has been suggested to overcome this and better capture this enthusiasm and translate it directly into voting power, is to lower the voting age to 16. In municipalities where the voting age has been lowered such as Takoma Park, Maryland, the youth turnout rate for 16 and 17-year-olds not only exceeded that of every other demographic in the city’s elections but nearly quadrupled the overall average.

But even without formally being registered, young people are just getting started. The effects of young people’s activism, specifically the rising of Gen Z, on our politics now and for years to come should not be underestimated. As Wright said, “I want people under the voting age to feel powerful because every revolutionary movement has been led by young people.”

Jazmin Kay is a youth political activist and writer. She is Executive Director of 18by.Vote and the former Voting Rights and Civic Engagement Reporter at Generation Progress. Follow her on Twitter.

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