After leading marches for racial justice, climate change, and stricter gun laws, energized and engaged young people voted at historic levels in November, and helped flip the presidency and the Senate to the Democrats.
Now, as President Biden begins his term, young activists are optimistic that their strength at the polls will translate into influence on issues such as police reform, reducing fossil fuel emissions, protections for undocumented young people, an assault weapons ban, and economic policies that help low- and middle-income families.
“Elected officials can no longer count out our constituency,” said Raie Gessesse, 22, the Midwest program manager for Ignite, a nonpartisan organization that helps women become involved in politics. “I don’t really see how you can run a successful campaign and win anymore if you don’t have young people.”
In a sign that young voters are getting their message across, hours after he was sworn in, Biden signed executive orders that included a few key youth issues. Biden paused student loan payments until September, recommitted to the Paris climate agreement, and called on Congress to grant permanent resident status and a path to citizenship to about 1 million young people who were brought into the country as children and protected from deportation under Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The power of young voters is evident in the data. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University said that between 52 and 55 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds who were eligible to vote did so in November, according to most recent available data. The youth voter turnout surpassed 2016 by an estimated 10 percentage points.
By the time all the votes are fully analyzed, the Tufts center projects that youth voter turnout this election cycle may be as high as 56 percent — the highest youth participation in decades and on par with 1972, the first presidential election held after the voting age was lowered nationwide to 18.
While young white voters favored Biden by a slim margin, his support among Black, Asian, and Latino youth exceeded 70 percent, according to data from the nonpartisan research center. In fact, the center estimates that in states such as Georgia and Arizona, “Black and Latino youth may have single-handedly made Biden competitive.”
In Georgia, where Biden beat Donald Trump by 12,000 votes, the Tufts center estimated that young voters, many of them Black, gave the former vice president 188,000 more votes than the incumbent.
“Turnout is an indicator how engaged the young people are,” said Abby Kiesa, the deputy director of the Tufts center. “Young people of color were particularly engaged.”
Young people also played a crucial role in the success of the two Democratic candidates in the Georgia Senate runoff earlier this month. People ages 18 to 29 voted two-to-one for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff versus their Republican opponents. Youth supported those Democrats by an even higher margin than they supported Biden in the presidential race, data from the Tufts center show.
As a voting bloc, young people have often been dismissed by politicians and pundits as unreliable. But youth activists across the country say they have been galvanized by recent events, including the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., and the police killing of George Floyd last summer in Minneapolis. When older adults were reluctant to knock on doors and register voters due to the pandemic, young people stepped up, according to grass-roots organizations that took part in the campaigns. Young people staffed get-out-the-vote phone banks and used social media to remind their peers about the issues at stake. A Tufts and Gallup poll in December found that a quarter of youth said they had donated to a campaign or registered others to vote.
Biden’s favorability among young people rose after he secured the Democratic Party nomination largely because he adopted more aggressive policies on issues they care about, namely climate change and systemic racism, said Brent Cohen, executive director of Generation Progress, a national advocacy organization.
Moving forward, Cohen said, it will be up to the leaders of both political parties to treat young voters as the powerbrokers they have proven they can be. That did not happen after the 2018 midterms, despite the fact that young people also voted in large numbers in that election.
“I’m really hopeful that coming out of 2020 we will see elected officials and campaigns and candidates and . . . institutions . . . treat young people as this political powerhouse that we are,” he said.
Younger voters tend to be skeptical of the political establishment and so far have organized largely outside of the two main political parties, founding activist groups such as March For Our Lives, the gun control group started by survivors of the Parkland school shooting, and the Sunrise Movement, a group started by young people to combat climate change. Surveys have found that more young voters than in previous generations identify as independents.
And that is a strength, said Toiell Washington, 22, a Boston native who helped found Black Boston, a young community group that organized protest marches this summer for racial justice.
Young people will be watching for progress and will march and mobilize again if they see little progress, Washington said.
“Whatever they are claiming they are going to do, they need to be held accountable,” Washington said. “Historically, being a Black woman, we’ve been promised a lot of things that we didn’t get. We’re not going to let them take our votes for granted, because we got them there.”
Isabella D’Alacio, 20, a Cuban American and a junior at George Mason University, said she has been lobbying legislators on issues such as gun control and immigration reform and will continue to do so. D’Alacio said she first became active in politics and in fighting for gun control after the shooting at Parkland, near where she grew up. Last summer she made hundreds of calls and sent thousands of text messages to voters on behalf of United We Dream Action, an immigrant-youth network.
D’Alacio said Biden and the Democrats need to include more youth voices and representatives when they make policy decisions. The Democrats also can’t take the Latino vote for granted, D’Alacio said, citing increased support for Trump and other Republicans in Florida and parts of Texas.
“To ensure they get our vote, they need to show up for us,” she said.
With a country divided and elections won on razor-thin margins, young voters have increased leverage to ensure that politicians move swiftly to keep their promises, said Leah Wright Rigueur, an associate professor of American history at Brandeis University who has studied the civil rights movement and politics.
If the Democrats want to keep their hold in the House of Representatives and Senate they will likely have to turn out and energize young voters for the midterm elections in 2022, and the best way to do that is to give young voters victories on issues they care about, Wright Rigueur said.
Young voters disenchanted with the political process can easily support an independent candidate or sit out the election entirely, she said.
“That should keep every Democratic strategist awake at night,” Wright Rigueur said.
Youth pressure on the administration to do more will remain, and activists involved in the movements for racial justice, climate change, and immigration reform have made clear that they can leverage their power to organize marches and mobilize voters, Wright Rigueur said.
“It’s a powerful movement,” she said. “There is going to be a call to the carpet. You will see that be explicit. They are poised to make real and significant demands and changes within our political system.”