DeKalb, IL — Bella Lianno was just one year shy of being able to vote in the 2016 presidential election. Despite her age, Lianno still wanted to get politically involved, so she joined Jolt, an organization that empowers young Latinos through political advocacy.
Lianno has always shown an interest in politics. But she knew she wanted to help get other younger Latinos to vote when President Donald Trump told his supporters that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” during a campaign speech.
“I needed to show that, in spite of the hateful ideologies, the Latino community isn’t going to back down, and we’re going to use our voice and use our numbers to get these hateful ideas to stop,” she said.
Today, Lianno, a junior at The University of Texas at El Paso, fears not enough young Latinos are going out to cast their vote, which is why she’s been phone banking with Jolt to get Generation Z — those who are 18 to 23 — registered for the 2020 presidential election.
In 32 states, voter registration among young people ages 18-24 is already higher for the 2020 election than it was days before the November 2016 election, according to a poll done by CIRCLE. But in 16 states, registration among teens 18-19 is lower than in 2016, and CIRCLE researchers say the COVID-19 pandemic could have hindered efforts to reach those voters. Youth-focused voter engagement organizations such as Rock the Vote and NextGen America saw record-high voter registration numbers on National Voter Registration Day. Snapchat has helped register over one million of its users to vote.
One of the main reasons young people are getting politically active is that issues such as healthcare, racism and police treatment of communities of color have become more salient this year, said Peter de Guzman, research program coordinator for CIRCLE.
“I think that young people are seeing these two actions of protesting and voting as a phrase I hear called ‘tools in the toolbox,’ of ways that they can really enact change,” Guzman said.
According to CIRCLE research, more than 7 million young adults, ages 18-29, have already voted early or absentee, including nearly 4 million in 14 key states that may decide the presidency and the control of the U.S. Senate. Early votes cast by young voters in Florida, North Carolina, Maine, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Michigan have exceeded the 2016 margin of victory in that state’s presidential race, CIRCLE data shows.
Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE’s director of impact, said Gen Z voters are becoming bigger stakeholders in elections. Part of the reason for that is due to younger people helping mobilize their peers.
“Young people in communities shouldn't have to hustle so hard to reach other young people to vote. There should be more people talking to a broad diversity of young people, and all that shouldn't fall on young people's shoulders,” Kiesa said.
In Gen Z’s first midterm in 2018, 28% of young people voted, an increase from the 2014 midterms, according to research done by CIRCLE. Student activism following the 2018 Parkland, Florida shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, also drove young voters to the polls.
With the pandemic, alongside increased awareness over racial injustice happening this year, younger people are fed up and ready to vote, explains Katrina Phidd, communications associate with Chicago Votes.
“Young people are seeing the direct impact in their lives every day,” Phidd said. “In the past, a lot of people have been like ‘I don't see a difference when I vote, my vote doesn't matter,’ and we're really seeing the consequences of elections now.”
Frédérique Desrosiers, a DemocracyCorps fellow at Chicago Votes, said a lot of younger voters just aren’t excited about the options they have for when they cast their ballot. Some younger voters in the 2020 election aren’t fully committed to a presidential candidate. Grassroots organizations such as “Settle for Biden'' have been established after progressive candidates dropped out of the race.
“A lot of us want to see something different,” Desrosiers said. “We want to see more diversity, we want to see young people, people of color and people from different backgrounds, upbringings, sexual orientations and gender expressions.”
Gen Zers who identify as Republican are also shown to have sharp differences in social and political beliefs. According to data from Pew Research Center, Gen Z Republicans are more likely to have differing opinions than older generations on key issues such as the treatment of Black Americans and climate change.
Young voters like Nick Dokoozlian, a junior history major at the University of Colorado Boulder, are encouraging other young Republicans to get politically involved even if they don’t favor Trump. Dokoozlian said he isn’t voting for Trump because of how he’s handled certain issues as president.
“I always tell people that if you can't get behind President Trump, I totally understand, but let's continue to fight for those Republican senators,” said Doloozlian, who’s also a state captain for Gen Z GOP.
Other young voters such as Michael Franklin, a senior legal communication major at Howard University, are excited about the election because it’s the first time a graduate from a historically black college or university is on a major party’s presidential ticket. There’s also lots of buzz and support among members of Sen. Kamala Harris’s sorority — Alpha Kappa Alpha and others of the “Divine Nine,” Black sororities and fraternities.
Franklin said that since all classes at the university are online, virtual challenges such as the #VoteHBCU Challenge are ways students can stay politically engaged. The challenge encourages HBCUs to register students to vote and see which school will have the highest registrations to win the “HBCU Voter Registration School of the Year.”
Like Franklin, Harris was on the debate team at Howard University.
“We're witnessing history,” Franklin said. “It's just phenomenal and inspirational to see the opportunity of a Black woman to be in that spot, and it definitely is just a reminder that we're following in the footsteps of people who are just making history every day.”