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HomeFall 2020Can Gen Z Sway the Vote? 

Can Gen Z Sway the Vote? 

Activists are betting on it

 

New activist Schneider Juste leads a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Photo by Jonny Rossington

 

Schneider Juste spent his summer sitting outside local Long Beach Island, N.J., businesses at a small black table, a stack of voter registration forms on his left and a bottle of hand sanitizer on his right. Every Saturday morning, he’d be out in front of a new business: a coffee shop, a clothing store, an ice cream parlor — anywhere that would give him the opportunity to register as many people as possible. The irony is that, just a few months ago, Juste had no plans to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election himself.  

“I never considered myself a political person,” said Juste, who is 20 years old. “I was not educated about it, and thought that for the most part it was all just corrupt. I just never really cared — until the death of George Floyd, at least.”

The killing of Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020 propelled Juste into becoming one of the biggest political activists in southern New Jersey. In the summer of 2020, he met U.S. Rep Andy Kim, a Democrat who represents District 3, to discuss new policies to protect Black lives. Then he organized and led a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest that drew more than 3,000 people.

But Juste considers his biggest success registering over 1,000 people to vote over the past three months – most of them young people his own age. 

“It’s time for the next generation to take over,” Juste said. “The gruesomeness of George Floyd’s unnecessary death, watching on video a police officer kneeling on his neck, watching [Floyd] cry that he could not breathe, encouraged me to dig deeper into what is happening behind the scenes of the police force, and the politics of today. Realizing the mistreatment of people of color and lower income families made me not only want to vote, but to inspire others to vote as well.” 

Realizing the mistreatment of people of color and lower income families made me not only want to vote, but to inspire others to vote as well.” — New activist Schneider Juste 

Juste is among many other people under 30 who have recently shown more interest in politics than in past years. According to Tufts University’s Tisch College Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, there have been major increases in youth voter turnout, as well as civil engagement on the political issues that matter most to them. According to Tisch surveys, some 25 percent of 18-29 year-olds have registered others their own age to vote, a more than 10 percent increase since 2018. And 27 percent have participated in a political demonstration, likewise a rise of 10 percent. Most importantly, 79% of people surveyed in that age group say the COVID-19 pandemic has shown them how deeply politics affects their everyday lives. 

“Being forced to stay at home, it also forced people my age to pay more attention to the world around us,” said Greg English, president of the Democrat Club of Boston College, and a member of the college’s student congress. “We are constantly checking the news for updates about COVID-19, in hopes of receiving updates on when our lives can go back to normal. Because of this, we have been forced to pay attention to other things going on in the world. When the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor occurred due to police brutality, people my age were tuned into the news. We realized what was occurring.” 

Greg is a fierce advocate for the Democratic Party, and surveys show that more Gen Z’ers skew left.  Tisch center polls found that 58 percent of people ages 18-29 favor Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Youth political participation is up, and more Gen Z’ers than ever have been inspired to voice their views. Yet the question remains: will they influence the vote?

In their Washington Post op-ed “The Youth Vote is Suppressed. The 26th Amendment is the Solution,” history professor Jennifer Frost and public defender Eric Fish detail the hurdles young people must surmount in order to vote at all. For many college students, voting places are inaccessible, especially if they are studying out of state. Some states are also throwing up barriers to mail-in voting. Texas rules only allow voters aged 65 and older (and those who are ill, disabled or away from home) to request mail-in ballots. Democrats argued that this latter provision openly violated the 26th Amendment, which establishes voting rights for all Americans over the legal voting age of 18, and challenged the policy in Supreme Court – but the Court allowed the rule to stand. Referring to President Donald  J. Trump, Frost called the unusual turnout of young people in the 2018 midterm elections “an unequivocal repudiation of a reactionary president.”

“It’s more than just what has unfolded in the past few months,” said Jacob McCrone, 20, a Rutgers University student who spent the summer 2020 raising money for the Biden campaign. “It is about the March for Our Lives movement, the Strike School for Climate Change, and now Black Lives Matter. These are all things that directly affect us (the youth) and the world we are inheriting. It’s cool to care.” 

“It’s about the March for Our Lives movement, the Strike School for Climate Change, and now Black Lives Matter. These things directly affect the world we’re inheriting. It’s cool to care.” –Rutgers University student activist Jacob McCrone 

McCrone works for a third party organization that was hired by the Democratic National Committee to raise money over the phone for Biden’s campaign. McCrone was an immensely successful fundraiser, raising $33,000 for the DNC. As a result, he was chosen to meet virtually with several members of the Biden campaign, to discuss the key to his successes. 

“People are angry and confused about the state of our country,” McCrone shared. “I told the people that I talked to that the things occurring right now: the hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths, the systemic racism [and] climate change causing natural disasters, are a direct effect of us not using our voices enough. I told them how valuable and important their money was to help us fix the issues we care about. They listened.”

We know from statistics and from recent political demonstrations that young people are now starting to care more about politics. They are on the streets at protests, voicing their opinions on social media, and registering others to vote.

But will the new motivation propel Gen Z to the voting booth, despite the obstacles of college attendance, and the pandemic? 

“Absolutely,” McCrone argues. “For many of us, it’s not just the first election we can vote in. It is the most important election we will ever vote in.”

Hamilton College sophomore Eric Stenzel is a youth leader in the Sunrise movement, a climate change organization pushing for a Green New Deal. He has spent the past two years organizing rallies and climate strikes, calling this “the focal point of my life.” Now, he said, his work has moved to the electorate. 

“We need to get the candidates elected that will do something about the issues we care about. That is now the main goal,” Stenzel said. “We do not feel very represented by the people in power today. We are not seeing people in office care about issues that will affect us — the youth — in 30 years down the line.”

Schneider Juste, Jacob McCrone, Greg English and Eric Stenzel are all youth organizers. Some of them have always been motivated in the world of politics. Others have found their motivation more recently. Their greatest common ground is the newfound trust they have in their generation to vote in this presidential election.

“Young people who were undecided, or thought their vote did not matter, have been exposed to a multitude of social issues that directly will change our lives these next few years,” English said. “With so much information at our fingertips due to the social media world, we know now more than ever, it is up to us.”

“When the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor occurred due to police brutality, people my age were tuned into the news,” said Boston College student Greg English. Photo by Jonny Rossington.

 

About Post Author

About the Author

Laura Esposito

Professor: Mary D'Ambrosio
Class: Writing about Social Issues

Takeaway: