The Power of the Youth Vote in Saving U.S. Democracy

In 2018, I voted in my first midterm election because—like so many of my friends—I was scared for the future of our country, our planet and our democracy in the pussy-grabbing hands of Donald Trump. That year, I was joined by thousands of other Gen Z voters who went to the polls for the first time in droves, breaking turnout records across the country and sending a strong message to the White House: We will save our democracy from Trump and all those who follow him.

In the next major election, we did just that. In 2020, young people had the highest voter turnout since the voting age was lowered to 18, kicking out Donald Trump from the White House and delivering a win to President Joe Biden. The high increase in youth turnout can be attributed to a burst of energy around racial justice movements led by young women of color and an unprecedented expansion of voting reforms like mail-in voting, making the ballot accessible to new voters in key battleground states. 

But kicking Trump out of power wasn’t enough to stop his movement from sowing distrust about our elections in our communities. Across the country, we’ve seen unprecedented efforts from politicians to suppress the vote of young people and people of color. And now, with the 2022 primary elections over, we are seeing an influx of election deniers running for all levels of government and threatening to not certify future presidential election results if 2024 doesn’t go their way. 

Nicole Hensel, left, and Raegan Cotton register college students to vote and answer their voting questions at Auraria Campus in Denver, Colo., on Sept. 22, 2020. (Hyoung Chang / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Young people can once again play a crucial role in saving our democracy and defeating candidates that threaten our future of free and fair elections. Since 2020, over 8 million young people have turned 18 years old, making them eligible to vote in the 2022 elections. This includes over 3.8 million BIPOC youth, making us the most diverse electorate the country has ever seen. 

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, young voters can play a decisive role in the Nevada, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania elections—where prominent election deniers are running for top statewide offices. If we care about the power of the youth vote, we must pay attention to these races since governors and their secretaries of state can have the final say on measures that are proven to increase youth turnout and reduce barriers that make it harder for young people to have their voices heard. 

In Arizona, secretary of state GOP nominee Mark Finchem has proposed restrictive voting measures like eliminating the state’s early voting program—a program that prevents thousands of students from having to wait in long lines at poll sites in-between their classes and jobs. In Nevada, GOP secretary of state nominee Jim Marchant supports complex ID requirements, which would disproportionately affect low-income voters and young people who don’t have DMV documentation. Both of these candidates have a chance at winning this November and are real threats to the right to vote for thousands of young people. 

Young voters are already showing high levels of interest in participating in the 2022 elections: An April 2022 survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that young voters will likely turnout at the same rate as the 2018 midterm cycle.

But we can’t take the youth vote for granted. Although young people are eager to vote, voter registration rates for our nation’s newest voters, ages 18-19 years old, are lagging in some states compared to 2018. As a result, these new young voters are often ignored by political campaigns and left in the dark about under-the-radar races (like secretary of state) because they are absent from voter rolls or written off as unreliable voters. 

A mother and son celebrate after dropping their ballot in the drop box at Western High School on Nov. 3, 2020 in Baltimore. The most common function held by secretaries of state is to serve as the state’s chief elections official (J. Countess / Getty Images)

To ensure young people understand these existential threats to our freedom to vote, my organization Generation launched GenVote Ascenders—the first-and-only national program dedicated to mobilizing thousands of young people to protect our democracy and leverage the youth vote to win critical secretary of state races in Arizona, Michigan and Nevada. From now till Election Day, we are hiring young BIPOC organizers to speak to thousands of young people about the importance of the secretary of state elections and prevent anti-democracy candidates from taking office. We will work with candidates to prioritize voting reforms that will protect the power of the youth vote and reimagine how young people fight for electoral justice in our communities. 

Democracy—and our futures—are truly on the ballot this November. If we turnout in record numbers, the young generation has the power to save our elections and achieve the multiracial and just democracy that all Americans deserve. 

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Brianna Cea is the executive director and founder of Generation Vote.