Television helicopters are in the business of relaying rush hour traffic tie ups and the occasional police car chase, but lately they have frequently deployed to a new story, filming students fleeing out of schools where a shooter is loose.
On Tuesday, however, came evidence that one constituency is motivated in response to such violence rather than numb to it. While still voting in smaller percentages than their elders, young voters are sending in ballots and becoming increasingly pivotal in American elections.
“Thank you, Gen. Z: You turned out, not only in our state but across the country,” Pennsylvania’s Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro said in a Tweet. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont tweeted: “Without the major turnout of younger voters, we would have seen a very different outcome in last night’s election.”
Maxwell Alejandro Frost, 25, an organizer with March for Our Lives — the gun safety campaign begun by Parkland, Florida, massacre survivors — will become the youngest House member when Congress convenes in January. According to Frost, speaking mid-campaign, “Gen. Z is quickly becoming one of the Democrats’ most reliable constituencies: Organizing with young people and not being afraid to tell about the bold change we need will keep this trend moving in the right direction.”
Surveys bear him out. Just 10 percent of eligible voters under 30 cast ballots in 2010, up to 21 percent in 2014, but jumping to 31 percent in 2018 and staying at 27 percent this year, according to figures compiled by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.
Surveys showed these voters are motivated by gun violence, abortion, and fears for democracy’s future. Voters aged 18-29 broke for the Democrats by a 63-35 percent margin, according to CIRCLE and network surveys. By contrast, the Baby Boom generation, voters over 65, gave just an 18-point advantage to Republicans.
“Gen. Z and young Millennials under 30 voted at such a high level and skewed for Democrats so much we canceled out every voter over age 65 across the U.S. in House races,” said David Hogg, 22, a Harvard student and Parkland survivor, who has attracted more than a million Twitter followers.
The trend to the left has aroused alarm among right-wing pundits of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. “The fact that these youth voters are coming in so strong in an off year is very concerning,” Laura Ingraham said in a post-election analysis on her Fox News program.
Young, unmarried women skewed even more in the D’s column, by a better than two-to-one margin — motivated by gun violence but more so by the Supreme Court’s ruling that took away the right to abortion. A bizarre response was suggested by Fox News host Jesse Watters. “But single women and voters under 40 have been captured by Democrats,” Watters told his watchers. “So we need these ladies to get married. And it’s time to fall in love and settle down. Guys, go put a ring on it.”
Did youth turnout make a difference in Washington state? “Yes,” said Shasti Conrad, chair of the King County Democratic Party. The campaign for Congress of Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in the 3rd District drew many young volunteer canvassers. Gluesenkamp Perez beat MAGA Republican Joe Kent in the country’s biggest House upset.
“As a Republican operative on the ground in a top-10 House seat, it seems clear nationally that youth voters and Gen. Z were the difference in several crucial House races,” said Matt Carlson of Bend, Oregon. “Those voters turned out strongly in favor of Democrats, besting the predictions of GOP models. These voters provide a challenge for the GOP going forward, who will need to make the argument that they are the party that is best suited to address the unique problems and challenges facing their generation.”
Spurred by young voters and its faith community, Oregon passed the most comprehensive gun-violence-prevention measure in U.S. history. It creates a permit-to-purchase requirement for firearms, restricts large capacity magazines, and closes background check loopholes. The win creates momentum for other states.
Pundits and the press across the country, notably The New York Times, predicted the 2022 election would be about the economy, inflation, and perceptions of crime — buildups to a Republican wave. “Those were important issues, but ultimately a narrative pushed by those that wanted to create momentum for a Republican wave,” said Stephen Paolini, 25, who managed I-1639, the gun safety initiative passed by Washington voters in 2018. “In reality, everyone but especially young people responded to the very real threats against our democracy, the ever-present reality of gun violence, and, of course, the fundamental right of women to control their own bodies.”
The political involvement of students and young reformers has waxed and waned over the years. Anti-Vietnam War activists helped topple Lyndon Johnson in 1968, and win the Democratic nomination for George McGovern four years later. A pair of presidents, Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Barack Obama, drew youthful followings.
But politics is frustrating, with progress slow and reverses frequent. Activism and skepticism seeming to be in rivalry. Stephen Nicholson, 25, a laboratory worker in Berkeley, Calif., was an environmental activist as a college student in Washington but notes that young people are “tired of the way the wheel keeps spinning no matter how many new climate reports come out.”
“Left-leaning youth got a lot more jaded after their mitten-clad champion (Bernie Sanders) lost to Trump and then again to Biden,” Nicholson said in an email. “A lot of the diehard environment people I know and talk to haven’t given up, but struggle to find enthusiasm in their peers.”
College campuses remain a catalyst. In the summer primary, State Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, an environmentalist and clean energy champion, found himself facing a challenger well funded by energy-industry PACs and construction unions. “The biggest block of young voters is Western Washington University and they were on summer break in August and turnout is always low then,” Ramel lamented. Once WWU students were back, he added, “We did see a ton of engagement among younger voters in the general.”
Younger voters tend to be drawn by and involved with causes and candidates rather than political parties. “The numbers don’t lie; Generation Z is voting,” said Matt Kanter, president of Young Democrats of Washington. “But I’m not sure if the methods our organizations have been using are the reason why. There are Gen. Z members of Young Dems who do amazing work, but you see more of them coming from organizations like ‘March for Our lives’ which are led by them.”
The numbers aren’t in, but it appears that young voters made a major difference in Wisconsin, where Democratic Gov. Tony Evers was narrowly reelected; with the Dems’ sweep of statewide offices and capture of the legislature in Michigan; and in Pennsylvania. Sen.-elect John Fetterman, he of hoodies and tattoos, received an estimated 70 percent of the under-30 vote in the Keystone State.
An activist for 50-plus years, Bernie Sanders has seen periods of slack interest. While celebrating involvement in recent election cycles, he delivered a plea: “I am asking the younger generations: Continue to stay engaged in the struggle. We have an enormous amount of work ahead of us.”
David Hogg, the Parkland survivor, chimes in: “Thankfully, we are going to outlive the insurrectionists in Congress and the NRA.”
Gen Z also has been leading the fight against voter suppression in many states. Youth organizers in states like Mississippi and Texas may have a steep uphill (up mountain?) climb, but it’s inspiring to see how many are fighting the good fight. It’s exciting to see the difference you describe that younger voters already are making in key elections.