PROVIDENCE — In Georgia, young voters helped propel Democratic US Senator Raphael Warnock to victory in a Dec. 6 runoff election against Republican Herschel Walker.
Nationwide, an estimated 27 percent of those ages 18 to 29 cast a ballot in 2022, meaning this midterm election had the second-highest young voter turnout in almost three decades, according to Tufts University researchers.
But in Rhode Island, just 22 percent of the Generation Z voters, who are ages 18 to 25, turned out for the Nov. 8 elections, according to newly released data from Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea’s office.
That turnout marked a sharp decline from the 59 percent of Generation Z votes who turned out for the 2020 election, which included President Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, and it’s down from the 28 percent of Generation Z voters who turned out for the last midterm elections in 2018.
Spurred to action by the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, members of Generation Z are emerging as the most politically active generation in many years, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
Millennials, who are ages 26 to 41, are eager to support their neighbors and launch new nonprofits but less enthusiastic about engaging directly with the political system, she said. Generation Z, by contrast, is very willing to engage in politics — not only to vote but to take part in protests and marches, serve on public boards, and run for public office, she said.
“They are really unhappy with the way that democracy is not working and that government is being ineffective,” she said. “Instead of moving away from government and voting, they are coming to change it.”
Using exit poll data, Tufts University researchers reported that abortion was the top issue for young voters in 2022, and young voters preferred Democrats over Republicans, 62 percent to 36 percent, in US House races. APVoteCast’s survey of the electorate found less enthusiasm for Democrats in the midterms, with 53 percent of voters under 30 backing Democrats compared to 41 percent backing Republicans.
But, in any case, what would explain the 22 percent turnout by Gen Z in Rhode Island?
Kawashima-Ginsberg said part of the explanation could be that Rhode Island is “a solidly blue state” where many of the most important elections take place in September’s Democratic primaries rather than November’s general elections.
Indeed, Providence voters chose their next mayor, Brett P. Smiley, in a three-way Democratic primary in September, and no Republican challenged Smiley in the November general election. A closer look at the new election data shows that just 15 percent of Generation Z voters from Providence turned out in November.
“Outreach is the biggest predictor of youth turnout,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “And 40 to 50 percent of young people don’t hear from any campaigns.”
National attention did focus on Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District, where Democrat Seth Magaziner beat Republican Allan W. Fung for the seat that US Representative James R. Langevin is vacating after 22 years. But that district includes just half the state, and half of Providence, while US Representative David N. Cicilline faced little competition in the First Congressional District contest.
Kawashima-Ginsberg said civics education is part of the solution to low turnout by young voters. If young people can get “hands-on, concrete experience” in public policy matters, then “young people will believe in their power for the rest of their lives and then they will, of course, vote,” she said.
She noted a group of Rhode Island students filed a federal lawsuit in 2018, arguing that their school systems had failed to prepare them to participate in civic life. The lawsuit was dismissed, and the decision was upheld by a federal appeals court. The plaintiffs were considering appealing their case to the US Supreme Court, but instead reached an agreement with the state to bolster civics education.
Senator Louis P. DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat, said improving civics education provides a long-term solution to low turnout by young voters. “Hope is not a plan,” he said.
In 2021, the General Assembly passed the Civic Literacy Act, he noted. That legislation, sponsored by Democratic Senator Hanna Gallo and Republican Representative Brian Newberry, requires public schools to provide at least one student-led civics project in either middle or high school.
Kawashima-Ginsberg said Massachusetts not only passed civics education legislation, it is also providing $2 million in annual funding to promote concrete civics education programs. “It’s not magic,” she said. “It needs resources.”
While civics education is a potential long-term solution, some see mail ballots as a short-term solution.
The National Vote at Home Institute said that while there’s lots of speculation about why young voter turnout is rising, “It turns out there is data, hiding in plain sight, that provides a definitive answer to that: Put a ballot in their hands!” The group notes that Colorado and Washington send mail ballots to all registered voters, and both states saw turnout of greater than 38 percent this year for voters ages 18 to 24.
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said Rhode Island might not be ready to send mail ballots to all voters yet. But he noted that Generation Z’s turnout shot up to 59 percent in 2020, when Rhode Island sent mail ballot applications to every registered voter during the pandemic.
Marion said Colorado dramatically increased voter turnout when it passed a comprehensive set of reforms. While it lowered barriers to mail ballots and expanded early voting last year, Rhode Island should take the next step and let voters register on Election Day, he said.
“That is the remaining change we can make that we know empirically will increase turnout,” Marion said. “It is especially true of voters who are highly mobile and that correlates with age. Younger voters are more mobile.”
Zack Mezera, Rhode Island organizing director the Working Families Party and former executive director of the Providence Student Union, said the 2020 presidential race and this year’s Georgia Senate runoff drew lots of young voters because the stakes were clear, the choices were starkly different, and campaigns invested tons of time and money into reaching voters.
By contrast, Rhode Island’s most high-profile election, the Second Congressional District race, focused on issues such as protecting Social Security and Medicare that tend to be of interest to older voters. And he said many candidates in this election cycle failed to make wholehearted attempts to reach and activate younger voters.
“There is huge untapped potential in young people,” Mezera said. “Young people’s votes in particular are often taken for granted.”
Candidates won’t motivate younger voters with talk of “tinkering around the margins,” he said. Rather, candidates can inspire younger voters by talking about “big and bold” ideas about what government can accomplish — the idea that “we can have a clean climate, we can have schools that work for everyone, we can have a fair tax system,” he said.
Looking ahead to 2024, Mezera said candidates should not expect younger voters to turn out in large numbers again like they did in 2020 — unless they are “talking about the future we could build together.”