Our Future Depends on Next-Generation Voters

This year, young people make up one in three of all eligible U.S. voters. Voter mobilization groups hope to channel their concerns into votes, especially in the battleground states.

A woman puts her ballot into a dropbox outside the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office in Norwalk, Calif. on Sept. 14, 2021, during the state’s recall election. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

“Why don’t young people vote?” That’s one question I’m asked all the time as the president of NextGen America, the largest youth voter organization in the country. People always want to know: “Why are young people so apathetic?” But those questions are based solely on misconceptions and outdated information.  

Younger voters are showing up like never before, increasing their participation at a greater rate than any other age group. Between the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, voters aged 18 to 29 saw an 11 percent increase in participation. The change in midterm elections has been even more dramatic—in 2014, only 21 percent of this age cohort voted, but in 2018, that percentage doubled to 42 percent.

Those remarkable gains reflect the determination of young voters to counter the venal postures and policies of Trumpism and white supremacy. That call to action is especially strong among young women. In the 2020 election, voter turnout among young women was 55 percent, compared to 44 percent among young men. And since the Supreme Court decision to eviscerate abortion rights, voter registration and motivation among women has surged even higher.

Polling also consistently shows that, across gender and race, young voters are progressive voters. They skew Democratic, although those who identify as independent are almost as large. The Republican Party, with its attacks on everything these younger citizens value, lags far behind. However, NextGen America doesn’t pin its hopes on any specific party or politician, but rather on the young people themselves, to ameliorate the greatest problems that assail our national health.

There’s no denying that the past four years have been frustrating for young people, who expected to see their votes evolve into transformational policies. However, despite delays and often tepid legislation, the power of a growing youth vote has helped to focus attention and win gains on climate action, racial justice, gun control and student loan debt. In the process, these younger voters are nudging the Democratic Party away from its 1990s tendencies to sacrifice the well-being of welfare recipients, people of color and working people to the interests of neoliberal fiscal policy.

The power of a growing youth vote has helped to focus attention and win gains on climate action, racial justice, gun control and student loan debt

A polling station during early voting at the Brooklyn Museum in New York on Nov. 1, 2022. (Lokman Vural Elibol / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The young people I work with every day are undeterred. They are ardent in their commitment to a multiracial democracy. They want an economy that prioritizes collective well-being over corporate profits—and an environmental policy that does the same. They want the freedom to love and marry whom they want, and to choose if and when to bear children. And they want to see schools that are safe from bigotry and gun violence, where students are free to learn, to think for themselves and to bloom.

In 2020, NextGen ultimately reached more than 10.5 million young voters—contacting one in every seven eligible young voters and mobilizing one in every nine who actually cast a ballot. Of the young people registered by NextGen, 73 percent turned out to vote—compared to 60 percent of young registrants overall.

This year, young people make up one in three of all eligible U.S. voters, and NextGen is helping to channel their concerns into votes with concentrated outreach across eight key battleground states. 

Recently, we were in Pennsylvania helping young people register to vote. That’s where we encountered Hailey, a 21-year-old gas station worker. When originally asked if she was registered, she revealed that she didn’t see the value or how her voice could make an impact. We asked her, “Do you have opinions? Is people telling you what matters ok with you?” to which Hailey responded, “Absolutely not.”

She registered with us and will be a first-time voter this November. Hailey said that she is most interested in turning out to protect abortion rights: “It is a gut punch and I feel outraged that an entity had that much power over us and can tell us what to do.” She is just one of the many young people we come across every day that remind us why we do this work. 

I don’t put my hope in any one politician—I put my hope in America’s young people, people like Hailey. Because while voting is not the only thing we can do, it is the most basic thing we must do. Young people are hungry for change. They have the courage, impatience and determination to demand and imagine things as they should be, not as they are. 

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is the president and executive director of NextGen America, the largest youth voter organization in the country. She is a millennial, a civil rights leader, and a 2020 U.S. Senate candidate who has spent the last 20 years taking on some of the most powerful special interests in her home state of Texas. Cristina’s dedication to lifting up the largest and most diverse generation in history is rooted in her conviction that young people have the power— and the right—to determine the future of our country.