The political impact of Gen Z: America’s youngest voters are preparing to make a change

After campaigning for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016, Caoilfhionn Pridmore, now a junior technical communications and political science double major taking a gap year from college, slowed down on campaigning when the popular, self-described democratic socialist lost the Democratic primary. 

They still voted for the Democratic ticket in the presidential election, but weren’t as passionate about Hillary Clinton’s policies. And then Donald Trump won the presidency.

“I spent probably 24 hours crying,” Pridmore said. “And then I got really angry, and I was like ‘I’m going to get involved in politics and do it on a local level,’ because I feel like nationally it feels like throwing rocks at the sun.”

Pridmore is now not only a student, but a drag performer, using their art as part of the national “Drag Out The Vote” campaign started in 2017 to engage and register voters — particularly young LGBTQIA+ voters — through drag events.

Advocacy for increasing youth voter turnout has a long history, and for good reason: for the 2020 general election, voters born after 1996, known as Generation Z will comprise 10% of the American electorate.

As young voters are less likely to be registered voters or to have voted at all, they are often targeted by campaigns for voter registration and participation.

Organizations such as Drag Out the Vote and BABE VOTE, which helps register voters and commits them to a voting plan, are urging the younger generation to take an interest in politics and choosing the next president. Although it can feel, for some people, as though their one vote will not matter, these organizations are working to show that anyone can make an impact.

Photo of a very long line of voters waiting outside of a polling station.
[Photo of a long line of voters waiting to enter a polling place]
Photo by John Spink | Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tribune News Service

National Voting Trends

Political science professor Dr. Charles Hunt said that the potential impact of young voters is particularly salient because, for the last 60 years, younger generations have been derided and blamed for voting at lower rates than older Americans.

Hunt attributes intergenerational low youth voting to barriers presented by shifting circumstances, whether that be attending college or not, moving away from home or being unsure of their vote.

According to Hunt, another reason younger Americans often don’t vote is disillusionment with the political system. Many hold a broad view of politicians as being inherently corrupt and that voting doesn’t have an impact.

Young Americans are especially concerned when long-term issues like climate change don’t receive as much attention as they would like, and while Hunt wants people to vote, he understands their concern.

“To me, it’s tough to blame young people for feeling a little disenchanted about voting and about the political system,” Hunt said. “With that said, the only way to fix that stuff is to vote, and is to get involved. None of that is a reason not to vote.”

With the coronavirus pandemic, the last four years of President Trump’s administration, a reckoning on racial injustice and looming economic and climate crises, it remains to be seen whether young voters will be spurred to vote in higher numbers than normal. It could become true if the results of the 2018 midterm elections are any prediction. 

The United States Census Bureau reported that voter turnout among Americans ages 18 through 29 increased more than any other age group from the 2014 midterm elections to the 2018 midterm elections. Youth turnout jumped from 20% to 36%.

While more people typically vote in general elections than midterm elections, that is only just over one-third of all 18 through 29-year-old Americans, meaning that demographic has significant potential to make an impact just by voting.

The majority of the change might be felt in America’s more liberal and progressive movements because of a push against Trump and the changing demographics of the young voters, Hunt said. According to the Pew Research Center, 22% of Gen Z voters, the oldest of whom are turning 23 this year, disapprove of President Trump, compared to 32% among their older siblings, the millennials. 

Not only is Gen Z on track to be the most educated, the most liberal, most racially and ethnically diverse, and most gender-variant generation in American history, Gen Z voters are also very skeptical of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

“I think younger generations tend to have a little more skepticism towards the two parties as organizations, particularly because they don’t see themselves as too well represented by them,” Hunt said, noting that there are very few Congress members younger than 35 in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

That skepticism has changed the way organizations market to voters. Rather than relying on the parties to market to young voters in particular, organizations across the political spectrum have emerged in recent years to reach younger Americans. Some, like Fair Fight, created by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, promote democracy in general. Others, like Drag Out the Vote, the campaign that Pridmore is affiliated with, target specific groups.

[Graphic collage of an American flag being flown above an LGBTQ+ Pride flag, a ballot box, a woman holding a sign and a man in a BABE VOTE shirt]
Graphic by Sarah Schmid | The Arbiter

Specific and Local Voting Advocacy Groups

Pridmore was startled by a dire statistic in their community. One in five LGBTQIA+ Americans who are eligible to vote are not registered, meaning that even fewer are actually likely to vote, leaving out a critical voice in democracy.  

Drag Out the Vote has also partnered with multiple national organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign and Rock the Vote. Having worked on political campaigns affiliated with groups like Planned Parenthood, Pridmore said that they are accustomed to being ignored or harassed, even by government officials.

Regarding politicians in Idaho, Pridmore said that one of the challenges they face in getting people engaged politically is the feeling that there is little that can be done to sway Idaho’s solid Republican majority.

“I am afraid that people will feel like they can’t do anything,” Pridmore said. “I’m so afraid that people will think this is how it is and we can’t fight them, and it is hard. It is so hard to fight them and it takes so much emotional effort and strength to be able to go and testify in front of them and be like ‘I am a person, and I am a whole person and I deserve to be treated accordingly.’”

Pridmore said that within the LGBTQIA+ community in Boise and around Idaho, racism, transphobia and misogyny make it even harder to organize politically, much less get along with one another. Those who are more privileged tend to view their places as secure and ignore the people in their communities who are more marginalized.

Many organizations also recruit young voters on a local level. Former Boise State gymnastics coach and political activist Sam Sandmire believes in the power of young people, partially because she has spoken with so many that feel powerless.

“Young people that I’ve spoken to don’t see it as ‘Democrats, good; Republicans, bad,’” Sandmire said. “They see it as people in power, and then the powerless, which is them.”

Sandmire is part of the organization BABE VOTE that was designed by Spencer Hattabaugh, a Boise State fine arts graduate, to register voters and help them commit a plan to vote. Sandmire has taken signs saying “BABE VOTE” to protests in recent years and said that younger people loved it and wanted to know more.

Though Hattabaugh is the owner and artist behind the brand, he still believes in the cause. BABE VOTE allows people to feel less pressure around voting because there are no policies or candidates attached to the name, which he hopes will allow people to feel more comfortable exploring their voting options if they are able to.

“If we can do one thing, we can vote,” Hattabaugh said. “That’s one thing we can kind of control, or try to.”

Sandmire looks to young Americans for leadership, having worked with them throughout her careers. Despite all the troubles of 2020, Sandmire believes that young voters are the pathway to creating change.

“Young people need to vote because they’re the ones that are going to be left with things like climate change and our screwed-up political system,” Sandmire said. “They’re the answer to the future.”

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