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What motivates young first-time voters to go to the polls in 2020

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  • In the past few years, there has been a surge in youth activism. But will movements like March for Our Lives and the global climate strike translate to the ballot box?
  • Activists and organizers explain what is motivating young — especially Democratic-leaning — first-time voters to participate in the 2020 election and how to get them to the polls.
  • “How can you expect a voter to show up if you’re not reaching out to them and inviting them to be a part of your team and inviting them to be a part of your process?” Charlie Bonner, 24, told Insider.
  • “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that campaigns make that young voters are not worth the investment and then they pat themselves on the back when we don’t show up,” Bonner continued.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Millions of young and first-time voters will be participating in this presidential election in less than 41 days. Among the top issues that they are paying attention to include climate change, gun violence, ending systemic racism and discrimination, the coronavirus, and the healthcare system, according to activists who work to turn out young voters.

These issues “will all really bear heavily on the rest of our lives and by showing up [to the polls] now, we’re helping shape what that will look like,” Michael Carter, 27, the communications manager of youth voting organization New Era Colorado, told Business Insider.

Young people have been more publicly engaged with these issues in the past few years. In 2018, March for Our Lives became one of the biggest youth-led protests since the Vietnam War, drawing between 200,000 and 800,000 protesters. In 2019, the youth-led global climate strike drew approximately 4 million demonstrators. Most recently, teens have been on the frontlines of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests this past summer that drew between 15 million to 26 million people in the United States alone.

“We’re seeing millions of people who just turned 18 that are extremely plugged into the issues,” Charlie Bonner, 24, communications director at youth voter engagement organization MOVE Texas, said. While youth engagement in the streets is evident, the same engagement has not always translated as well to the ballot box.

In South Carolina’s Democratic primary, which marked a turning point for former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, young voters made up 11% of the electorate compared to 15% in 2016, and Sen. Bernie Sanders won 43% of the youth vote compared to 56% four years ago. On Super Tuesday, Sanders credited the lack of youth voter turnout to his defeat. 

The issue of youth voter turnout ‘is not an issue of apathy but an issue of access,’ Bonner said.

Increasing youth turnout lies in giving young people the tools to be involved in civic life, Bonner explains. This would include efforts by campaigns to give young people information about who is running in their community and how to get registered.

March for Our Lives NYC 2018

NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 24: Demonstrators hold signs during the March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018 in New York City. Thousands of people across the country marched in support of tighter gun control laws.

Andrew Holbrooke/Getty Images


Campaign investment in youth voter outreach can be key in motivating them to the ballot box. Lack of voting information given to first-time voters can hinder turnout, and while young adults are engaged with the issues important to their lives, one-third are unsure whether their state has online voter registration and only 25% have voted by mail before, according to Gallup. 

A poll conducted by the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, or CIRCLE, found that voters under 29 are enthusiastic about voting by mail if they can find out how to do so. In addition, 83% say they believe young people have the power to change the country, 60% feel like they’re part of a movement that will vote to express its views, and 79% of young people say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize that politics impacts their everyday lives.

“How can you expect a voter to show up if you’re not reaching out to them and inviting them to be a part of your team and inviting them to be a part of your process?” Bonner said. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that campaigns make that young voters are not worth the investment and then they pat themselves on the back when we don’t show up.”

“We need campaigns to show up for us in the way that we are showing up for them,” he said. He wants campaigns to focus not just on urging voters to turn out as elections near, but intensify efforts to get young people registered to vote well before the election takes place. Bonner also explained that young people are more engaged at the local level because they see that policies like policing reform can get enacted through elections like the district attorney and sheriff races in their communities.

Another key to youth voter engagement is social media, activists explained.

Conservatives do a good job of reaching out to young voters through social media. “There has been a failure of progressives to invest in media and social media as a form of outreach and message,” Bonner said. According to a 2017 report by Generation Progress, conservative youth groups received half a billion dollars more in contributions from 2008 to 2014 than progressive youth organizations. 

While conservative personalities like Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk have millions of followers on social media platforms and organizations like Prager University and Turning Point USA to engage youth on social media platforms, there is no equivalent from the left, explained Sarah Audelo, 36.

“You don’t see that type of energy and prioritization [of young people] on the left,” Audelo said, executive director of the Alliance for Youth Action, a network of organizations focused on youth engagement year-round. “It’s the left’s fault for choosing to not invest in this large, progressive, diverse, powerful groups of young people.”

Though there’s a lack of a strong social media organizational presence, that doesn’t mean that teens have not used platforms to engage politically. Teens used TikTok to prank Trump in June. They claim to have registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets to the rally that they never planned to attend which led the attendance to the event to be much lower than expected. As a way to support Black Lives Matter, teens used Instagram to promote text-heavy and carousel posts about how to be anti-racist, what literature to read, and how to organize and attend their own local protests.

‘It’s a low bar to be not Donald Trump,’ Audelo said.

According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials remain the most liberal and democratic among adult generations and leave heavily towards the Democratic Party. Members of Gen Z are similar to Millennials in their political preferences, particularly in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Among registered voters, a January Pew Research Center survey found that 61% of Gen Z voters (ages 18 to 23) said they were definitely or probably going to vote for the Democratic candidate for president in the 2020 election, while about a quarter (22%) said they were planning to vote for Trump.

Though it does not break down the data by age-range, TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm, found that there was a surge in Democratic and unaffiliated voter registrations in June. In the first half of June this year, 1.1 million voters registered compared to 1.5 million voters registered in the entire month of June 2016.

In this upcoming presidential election, young Democratic voters don’t want Joe Biden to just be not Trump. “It’s a low bar to be not Donald Trump,” Audelo said. Young people don’t want just opposition messaging against Trump but for candidates to present their own ideas. “They instead want to hear from candidates who are going to weigh out a vision of the future that they’re going to be building together and alongside young people.”

This election will be critical for first-time voters and they see it as the most important of their lives. “We are at an inflection point in this country that is being led by young people, and we are going to turn out our friends and our neighbors, our classmates to vote,” Bonner explained. “Because we know what’s on the line better than anyone else.”

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