Every election cycle we seem to hear the same conflicting messages about young voters: For every call to mobilize young voters, there is a pundit shaming youth for their apathy.
Since the 26th amendment lowered the federal voting age to 18, billions have been spent to court young voters, typically by non-young voters. Rock the Vote was created in 1990 by a record-label executive in his 40s who today remains a leader of the organization’s board. Others – Hip Hop the Vote, Buzzfeed’s Please Just Vote – have emerged as still more money is spent by institutions and well-meaning donors, more likely to long for their old myspace account over TikTok.
Still, ever since MTV’s 23-year old reporter Tabitha Soren “crashed” the 1992 party conventions to ask party leaders their plans to engage younger voters, youth voter engagement has risen steadily but has never matched or exceeded overall voter turnout.
Today’s 18-24-year-old voters are Generation Z. They are engaged at unprecedented levels on every major issue; and if that engagement extends to the voting booth, the result will be a political earthquake.
Characterized as fearless, socially conscious, and ‘woke’, Gen Z is not willing to wait their turn to make the world better for their grandchildren. They see a bleak future and demand change now. NextGen America surveyed 18-24-year-olds in 2016 and found 40% expressing they planned to vote (39.4% of them did). In their most recent 2020 survey, done before this summer of protest and civic action, for the first time, a majority of 18-24 years said they planned to vote.
Signs that Gen Z voters will show up are on display, particularly in key battleground states. Nearly eight million young people have cast their ballots as of October, 29th, according to Target Smart, three million in key states, according to CIRCLE.
Issues seem to drive this motivation. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in May, a recent Harvard Youth Poll found that across demographics young people want the government to do more to address “systemic racism and improve race relations”. The March For Our Lives and Sunrise movements led by young people highlight two other pressing issues: protections against gun violence and the proliferation of climate change. They have taken to the streets and are already taking to the polls as well.
Gen Z knows that a victory in November is not the end, it’s just the beginning. " You are privileged in that… You get to die of old age, but I will die of climate change," said one Gen Z voter to Buzzfeed News.
Inspired by leaders like AOC, Cori Bush, Greta Thunberg, Jamie Margolin from Zero Hour, Evan and Varshini from Sunrise, and Emma Gonzalez from March for Our Lives, they are ready to take on power structures that have been left in the hands of older white men for too long.
2020, a year that has most of them stuck in online classrooms due in part to the failures of the Trump Administration, is the first test of Gen Z’s might. And if they turn up, we are officially living in their TikTok world.
Shasti Conrad is the founder of CTRL Z, a political action committee reinventing Get Out The Vote for Generation Z.
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