Translating Youth Activism into Electoral Results

Disclaimer: The authors have been involved in leadership positions with JumboVote and Meghan O’Brien was formerly employed by MassVote.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, a young and diverse generation was beginning to bring its activism to electoral politics. The crises of 2020 have brought young people into the streets demanding change with a fervor not seen in decades. And yet, young people are chronically underrepresented at the polls, often voting at nearly half the rate of those over 65.

This is not because young people are lazy or apathetic. This view fails to recognize the unique challenges young people, and BIPOC communities in particular, face in both registering and casting a ballot. It also ignores the role young activists play in current movements like Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, and March For Our Lives. The energy and ideas behind these current movements are rooted in a long tradition of young BIPOC leadership in social movements, particularly 20th century Black liberation movements. Young people are uniquely qualified through their status as the nation’s largest eligible voting group to shape the world with their vision on election day and beyond. A national poll conducted by Tufts’ Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) showed promise of this soon becoming a reality, and found that “despite…the interconnected crises shaping American life, young people are interested and engaged in the 2020 election, believe they can make a difference, and stand ready to make their voices heard.” 

It is not enough to tell young people to vote, nor is it productive to shame others for not previously engaging in the democratic process. The younger generation and BIPOC communities are more likely to face undue burdens to both registering and casting a ballot on Election Day that include sudden changes in polling place, lack of transportation, and restrictive identification requirements. Peter de Guzman of Tufts’ CIRCLE pointed out that “these barriers are not entirely unique to young people, but they do affect young people disproportionately because of access to income, familiarity with completing government forms, and having proper ID.” Young people and people of color are victims of voter suppression tactics, not a politically apathetic monolith as they are often portrayed.

Voter suppression tactics aimed at particular groups, whether by age, race, or gender, are all rooted in some of the darkest chapters of American history. Six decades ago, much of the American South was under a regime of racial apartheid known as Jim Crow. This brutal system rose out of the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1890s and depended on the disenfranchisement of Black people and poor white folk alike, whose shared interest aligned against the landed gentry of the Old South. The cornerstone of the Jim Crow system was a denial of what John Lewis described as the “sacred right to vote.” During the Jim Crow period, systemic voter suppression in the form of poll taxes and “literacy tests,” a misnomer for arcane exams required to register to vote, coupled with endemic corruption and vigilante terrorism, maintained this system of disenfranchisement. 

The Jim Crow system was ultimately brought down by young, radical Black organizers who were denied the right to vote entirely. Their demand was clear: an affirmation of their full rights as citizens, chief among them the right to vote. Their triumph brought the United States closer to being a true democracy and is enshrined in the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. These victories demonstrate that the right to vote is sacrosanct in a country that claims to be a democracy, but that change cannot happen through voting alone. Change in the 1960s came through boycotts, strikes, and marches—the same strategies being used by young organizers today. 

In the 21st century, young leaders, especially BIPOC organizers, continue to advance some of the most sweeping social and democratic reforms of our time. From fighting for racial justice to confronting climate change to ending gun violence in schools, young people mobilize their peers and community members around existential issues while also facing 21st century voter suppression. These suppression efforts contribute to young people being underrepresented at the polls; however, for many young people, they are not insurmountable. The barriers that exist today are not the same as the overt barriers that existed in the Jim Crow South because of the work of young Black activists during the Civil Rights Movement. 

That’s not to say they don’t still exist—these barriers continue to shut out young voters right here in Massachusetts. Alex Psilakis, Policy and Communications Manager at MassVOTE, described how young voters in Massachusetts face undue barriers to casting a ballot: “The act of voting was, in my opinion, made unbelievably difficult for the September 1 primary.” He elaborated, saying that early September primaries tend to fall near move-in days for college students and new residents whose leases start in September, so these residents are excluded from voting at their new addresses. In addition, the Commonwealth’s voter registration deadline falls 20 days prior to an election, which makes registering at a new location in time even more difficult. Psilakis noted that expanded registration, early voting, and mail-in voting options due to COVID-19 have helped reduce the harmful effects of these policies, but election officials must make them permanent and continue expanding options for voters. “It shouldn’t be hard to vote. That’s simply a method of keeping turnout down and limiting change,” Psilakis said. “Making sure that voting is made as easy and accessible as possible is critically important to allowing young people to vote.”

Beyond a lack of information and challenges navigating the registration system, young people feel less qualified to participate in the political process. A 2018 CIRCLE report showed that nearly a fifth of young people felt that they did not “know enough” to vote. JumboVote, Tufts’ student-led nonpartisan voter registration and civic engagement group, seeks to counter this sentiment by empowering the Tufts community to take part in the democratic process on election day and beyond. Lidya Woldeyesus, a student chair of JumboVote, noted that the organization began sending materials to new and returning students this summer and will continue engaging with students with the goal of reminding them that “you deserve for a government to prioritize you.”

Although many young people feel like they lack enough information to participate in the democratic process, Woldeyesus argued that this generation of young people is uniquely qualified to do so. She points out that “politics isn’t everything…but we know the issues facing our communities, our loved ones, and our society. We all have something we care about, whether it is big or small.” These issues range from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, to economic instability, to climate change, to institutions that continue to be plagued by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Although each of these factors impacts individuals and communities in different ways, Woldeyesus emphasized that “your voice matters in politics, and elected officials should listen and view you as a valued constituent.” The main point Woldeyesus wants her peers to take away is: “Plain and simple, you should vote because your voice matters and your community matters and your life matters and you deserve to be represented in government…One of the biggest ways to do that is to elect people to office who share your values.” 

Psliakis shared a similar message, encouraging young people to vote in state and local elections as well as presidential contests, noting that state officials are often “deciding a lot of policies that the federal government is too gridlocked to decide.” Psliakis explained that “a lot of states, for example, are jumping in and providing unemployment assistance; they’re providing PPE to their state when the federal government isn’t…And of course federal officials matter, too, but it’s those that are overlooked, the city-elected officials and state-elected officials, that play a huge role in deciding what the future looks like. So young people need to vote so they can decide their future, but they need to vote at all levels.” CIRCLE’s 2020 Youth Electoral Significant Index supports this sentiment, showing that young people have the potential to play decisive roles in critical swing states and closely contested House and Senate races. 

Woldeyesus acknowledged that “there are so many ways that the government has failed people, and there are so many times when people show up to vote and no change happens. But I think if you find your niche, and you find the issues that you’re actually passionate about, then you can learn to make change in many different avenues. And voting is just one part of that.”

Groups like Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives and the Sunrise Movement demonstrate the power young people have to usher change into their communities. However, facing such existential issues requires participation in all areas of civil society, including the electoral process. By leveraging their power as the nation’s largest voting bloc, the younger generation becomes a stakeholder in a key part of the democratic process. Young people can remake this country in their image. Voting, despite the past and present barriers, is a critical part of the equation.