The Year of the Youth

Thanks to unmatched circulation of information about voting and issues, the elusive young voter turnout is finally here

USF Votes, the University’s voter registration initiative, registering students on campus on March 3 for the 2020 primary. They registered about 15% more people this year than past years. COURTESY OF MCCARTHY CENTER FLICKR

Mardy Harding

Staff Writer

When Miguel Arcayena started planning voter registration programming for the 2018 and 2020 midterm elections with USF Votes, he was disappointed. “We were surprised at the number of disengagement on campus for such a politically active group of students,” Arcayena, a junior political science major at USF, said. Across the campus, 54.6 percent of eligible voters voted in the 2016 election, and less in 2018. This was still above the overall voting rate for young people nation-wide. As the 2020 election bears down, however, USF Votes has registered about 15 percent more people than past years, according to Arcayena. 

USF’s students are part of a surge in youth voter turnout in California and around the country. According to TargetSmart, a democratic political data firm, more than 10.7 million young people (under 30) have already voted, as of Nov.2. This is over half of all youth votes cast in 2016, and is approaching the total number of youth votes cast in 2018, which saw a record youth turnout compared to past midterm elections. 

The reason for the unprecedented turnout? 

“In this particular election, I think the accumulation of the enthusiasm to drive out the president is obviously the main, driving force of it, but secondly it’s the issues itself, it’s the policy itself,” Arcayena said. “Specifically, climate change and social justice. With the pandemic, it’s directly affected all of us.”

The youth I spoke to around the country agreed. With a growing circulation of information on social media, combined with a summer of activism and protest for racial justice, and a pandemic keeping young people at home, youth seem to be more engaged with politics than ever. A poll by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, taken in the spring at the start of the pandemic, found that nearly three in five young people feel that the results of the 2020 election will directly impact their life. A separate poll taken by the Institute in October found that 63% were still “definitely planning on voting.” 

“It’s kind of a chain reaction,” said Adi Sadeh, a junior at the University of Colorado, Boulder who works with the voter engagement organization New Era Colorado. “What I’ve noticed is that everyone’s talking about the election, it’s huge. It’s everywhere on social media and I think the young people are turning out more than ever because their peers are turning out, and we’re empowering one another to turn out. And that’s a really special thing.”

Sadeh said that youth seem to be engaged with the issues on the ballot, and not just the names. Despite this, young voters in Colorado are expected to make a significant difference in the state’s senate race between incumbent Cory Gardner (R) and the state’s former governor, John Hickenlooper (D), according to Tufts University’s Center for Investigation and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). CIRCLE has been tracking the likely influence of young voters on the upcoming election by comparing both the demographics and voting trends of young people to the rest of that state’s population.

For the presidential race, CIRCLE found that youth are poised to largely influence swing states, including Florida, where Anona Neal, a senior at Rice University in Houston, Texas, lives and votes. Neal said it helps knowing that her vote matters, but, like Sadeh, suspects the youth are primarily motivated by the visibility of the issues they’re voting for. “Because of social media, we are way more connected,” she said. “Like, we see things, very bad things, happening in real time. Police brutality videos just pop up on the internet now and you get to see it happen. And I feel like while it is very sad and painful, I think it stirs something very deep in a lot of people and it kinda makes you care a little bit more.”

Nearly every student I spoke to talked about combating systemic racism and the urgency of preventing climate change. Some students were able to rattle off more specific measures on their state ballots. 

Christian Moore, a senior at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, said the state’s “controversial topic” is Amendment One, which would address gerrymandering, a practice of drawing legislative districts in order to influence local elections.

To the south, University of Alabama junior Matty LeMaire talked about his home state of Louisiana’s own Amendment one, which would restrict access to abortion for women by preventing state funding. 

Up in Montana, junior Hailey Sinoff is engaging her peers at Montana State University with the election for the state’s Public Service Commission, which oversees the state’s energy management. “It’s cool in Montana because there’s just not a ton of people here, so the university students can actually really influence the election,” Sinoff said. “And that’s a really powerful thing to realize and to get other people excited about.” 

Adi Sadeh, a junior at the University of Colorado, interns for the organization New Era Colorado, and poses here on campus while engaging and registering students to vote. COURTESY OF ADI SADEH 

In California, the McCarthy center’s Angie Vuong said students at USF are excited about propositions that would allow parolees and people under 17 to vote in San Francisco. 

Even with increased knowledge and visibility for issues the youth cares about, Vuong said there are still major obstacles to convincing, and allowing, young people to vote. “I still see challenges to people not wanting to vote in this election because it won’t change our systems, that there is no power in the vote and more power elsewhere,” she said in an email. “Voter suppression is very real and very prevalent this election.”

CIRCLE found that information on voting by mail is less available to young Black voters, even though young Black women are some of the most likely, among youth, to be politically active. Sinoff said ballot drop boxes were removed from her college campus in Bozeman, Montana after the city decided to have an all-mail election. Neal, in Florida, expressed concern about whether the turnout is demonstrative of long-term engagement, or if it’s just a trend. “I trust the youth, but I don’t trust the youth,” she said. 

Nonetheless, youth are showing up to this election. Studies have shown that the more young people talk to one another about political issues and voting, the more young people vote. If this holds true, there is reason to believe the historic early voting turnout of youth is significant and not a one-time trend. Mark Gearan, who directs the Institute of Politics, is optimistic. “Young Americans recognize that the issues that impact their day-to-day lives are on the ballot, from health care and mental health to racial and social justice,” he said. “As this generation becomes the largest voting bloc in the electorate, their notable civic participation is a very good sign for the future.” 

For related coverage, see First-time Voters

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