If you’ve been paying any attention to the news over the past few months, you’ve seen the crowds of young faces taking to the streets to protest racism and systemic inequality with unmatched vigor. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed younger generations to the epicenter of political discourse. According to a recent poll by the Center for Information and Research Learning, more than 8 in 10 young Americans believe they have the power, as a group, to change the country, and three-quarters of youth say they are paying some or a lot of attention to the election. Young people have taken on leadership roles in protests, political campaigns, and activist organizations. We are poised to become the most politically engaged generation yet.
And yet youth don’t adhere to the gold standard of civic participation: voting. In the 2018 midterm election, according to CNN exit polls, 56 percent of voters were over 50. By comparison, voters under age 30 accounted for just 13 percent—and it was a good year for youth turnout.
So why don’t young people vote? In 2016, when I was 15, I watched the candidate who won the popular vote by several million lose the election. Then I sat back and watched as the president attempted to roll back civil rights reforms for three years. Witnessing a nationwide mismanagement of a pandemic was just the cherry on top. It’s no wonder that many young people feel that their voice is better heard at a protest rather than the ballot box. According to the American Psychological Association, Gen Z has higher stress levels on issues like gun control and climate change than voters in other age groups, but that hasn’t translated into the motivation to vote. The political disillusionment typically reserved for older generations has infiltrated the young.
But political cynicism only accounts for so much. The issue at the heart of low voter turnout among the young is far more sinister. In recent years, the United States has witnessed a proliferation of voting restrictions and requirements. As of April 2020, 34 states have enforced voter ID laws. Twenty-nine states require registration before election day, and nine states do not even offer early voting. The responsibility resides with the voter to know the voting rules of their county, which could differ widely from those one county over. Unsurprisingly, voting restrictions don’t affect everyone equally. A Brennen Center study found that 17 million Americans were purged from voter rolls between 2016 and 2018, with the highest purge rates coming from counties with a history of racial discrimination. More overtly, in Texas, the counties where the Black and Latinx population is growing by the largest numbers have experienced the vast majority of the state’s poll site closures. Voter suppression is far from a thing of the past.
Compounding the challenge of navigating logistical obstacles to voting is a lack of civic knowledge. Up until the 1960s, it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. Today, however, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics. These classes are often heavy on knowledge but light on building skills and agency for civic engagement, such as current politics, civil debate, critical thinking skills, and community service. If taught effectively, civics classes can encourage students to become informed and engaged citizens.
But even a more informed electorate will face a plethora of institutional barriers to voting that have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. Look to the disastrous primary in Georgia, where broken voter machines kept voters in line for hours at polling sites, or to New York, where thousands of mail-in ballots remained uncounted more than three weeks after the June primary. In Milwaukee, 180 polling locations were reduced to just five as poll workers canceled plans to work on election day for fear of getting sick. If the primaries are any indication of what voting will be like in November, thousands of voters may find themselves disenfranchised.
Young people continue to view voting in the context of a broken system that has yet to earn our trust. Rather than sit back and wait for the system to repair itself, we must use our vote to elect those who will reform our democracy. Voting is a privilege not everyone can enjoy, and it’s one that young people must take advantage of. In the 2020 election, one in ten eligible voters will be members of Gen Z. Younger voters are being presented with the invaluable opportunity to have our voices heard. After all, it is our future that is being made at the ballot box, and we must take it into our own hands.
Visit https://www.vote.org/to check your registration, find your polling location, and get election reminders.