From the streets to the ballot box, America’s youngest voters are ready to be heard
Demonstrators at the Cleveland presidential debate protest for Black lives and climate justice, on September 29, 2020. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24

In key battleground states, Gen Z is ready to make its voice heard. And for many among America’s most progressive generation, that means setting aside their misgivings about establishment politics to vote for the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden.

On a crisp Thursday in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan’s flagship campus is unusually quiet. The university is one of many across the United States that has welcomed students back to campus amid the Covid-19 pandemic; but with many activities and some courses shifting online, the fall semester is off to a somewhat muted start.

One corner of campus, though, is bustling. Tucked in the lobby of the university’s Museum of Art (UMMA) is a voter registration office operated by the Ann Arbor City Clerk. The temporary office has been open since September 24, when early voting began in the state, and staff said interest among students has been overwhelming.

“‘Surge’ is an understatement,” said Candice Price, 34, a poll worker and Ann Arbor native.

“After the debate, it was crazy,” Price told FRANCE 24, referring to the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Biden on September 29, in which Trump repeatedly interrupted his opponent, to the dismay of both Biden and the moderator.

“It was like zombies on the windows, trying to get in here. It was insane. There were kids waiting in line for like 45 minutes to vote.”

Price said many students who came to the office that day were quick to say why: They wanted to vote Trump out.

“They were very clear why they came in,” Price said. “[Their] words were, ‘I’m tired of this foolishness, this can’t happen anymore ... you need my vote, this is a swing state.’”

Michigan, along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, is one of the three states that delivered Trump’s electoral college victory with a razor-thin margin in 2016.

The temporary election office, which will close on Election Day, is one of hundreds of sites where Michigan residents can cast their votes early under sweeping election reforms approved by voters in a 2018 ballot initiative. Michiganders can now register and vote on the same day – up to and including Election Day – as well as obtain an absentee ballot without providing a reason.

Price has seen the results first hand.

“Typically, Ann Arbor City has about 15,000 people that request absentee ballots. We’ve had over 40,000,” she told FRANCE 24. “At the headquarters, people are stuffing envelopes over and over and over … I’ve probably done about 1,000 myself.”

UMMA has given similar numbers, reporting in a tweet that the office “registered more than 1,000 new voters” in its first week and that “more than 800 absentee ballots (were) returned”.

Logan Woods, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan and secretary of the campus voter registration drive Turn Up Turnout, told FRANCE 24 by email that he has “heard no indication that number is dropping” as voting continues.

Across Michigan, youth voter registration is up since 2016, according to researchers at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

As of September, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds registered to vote in the state was 12 percent higher than in November 2016, with some six weeks to go before Election Day. That was before National Voter Registration Day (September 24), the debate and the rush of voters seen by the Ann Arbor campus office.

Still, CIRCLE’s findings suggest that the “surge” Price describes may not be reflected nationwide. In six of the 27 states the researchers surveyed, youth registration at last count was actually down from November 2016.

Reports have pointed to several possible factors. In Ohio, where youth registration has dropped the most, voting rights advocates have blamed voter ID laws and other technicalities for making it harder for students to vote.

Then, of course, there’s Covid-19, which has collided with a maze of state laws to turn voting into a logistical, legal and political battle not seen in decades. Many states have made it easier to vote by mail, but that is not an intuitive solution for a generation raised with smartphones.

Even in states like Michigan, which have made it relatively easy to vote, the pandemic has exacerbated longstanding logistical hurdles to getting to the polls. Price said social media has played a role in counterbalancing that.

“First-time voters come in and say, I saw it on Instagram… I saw it on Twitter... that’s a big deal,” she said. If you don’t connect with them online, she added, young people are not going to show up.

Diverse, progressive – and elusive

The biggest obstacle of all, though, may be convincing young voters that the candidates can actually make a difference in their lives.

It’s not that they’re apathetic. On the contrary, members of Generation Z – generally defined as those born after 1996 – have been at the forefront of the defining social movements of the last several years, from the climate strikes to March for Our Lives to Black Lives Matter.

That’s no great surprise: polling from Pew Research has found Gen Z to be the most diverse and progressive generation of Americans yet. Just a slim majority (52 percent) are white. Of the 13- to 23-year-olds surveyed by Pew, 35 percent said they knew someone who used gender-neutral pronouns, compared to just 16 percent of Gen Xers and 12 percent of baby boomers.

On the economic front, about half of those polled this year reported that their household had faced a loss of income due to Covid-19 and a whopping 70 percent said the government should do more to address social problems – nearly double the rate among the oldest Americans.

The open question is how much of Gen Z’s political energy will translate to the ballot box in what, for millions, will be their first-ever presidential election.

The generation’s older members make up some 24 million eligible voters this year, but only 4 percent of likely voters. That’s because, historically, most young Americans do not vote. And while they bucked that trend in 2018, helping Democrats reclaim the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, there is no guarantee the pattern will hold.

“Zoomers” may lean heavily Democratic, but polling shows them to be increasingly distrustful of established institutions. As many as half of those who identify as Democrats are also wary of “party elites”, according to CIRCLE polling from 2018.

“I don’t think [Biden is] a long-term plan,” said Madison Horton, a 20-year-old student in nursing and anthropology at Ann Arbor. She backed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and like many of Sanders's young supporters, lost enthusiasm after he conceded defeat. Still, since Biden clinched the nomination, she “never really doubted” she would vote for him.

Some of Trump’s more extremist positions might also help galvanize young voters. Horton said that when Trump couldn’t do “something as simple as condemning white supremacy” on the debate stage, that sealed her decision.

Horton, who works in the art museum café adjacent to the city clerk’s office, is confident that many of her peers will vote the same way – even those who still support Sanders.

“I think to continue the support for Bernie, people are deciding to vote for Biden,” she said.

Despite their reservations, nearly two-thirds of likely Gen Z voters polled by Morning Consult in September plan to vote for Biden, compared to just 27 percent for Trump.

‘Someone has to step up’

Horton joins a wide swath of young voters who feel disillusioned with the political options available at the national level but who plan to cast what they see as a necessary vote for Biden. In FRANCE 24’s reporting across the Rust Belt in late September and early October, we encountered versions of this sentiment among a range of young social movement activists in key swing states spanning from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin.

In Cleveland, Ohio, on the night of Trump and Biden’s rancorous debate, several hundred demonstrators gathered a few blocks from the venue for the Cleveland presidential debate protest for Black lives and climate justice. The protest was organized by about a dozen racial justice, environmental and left-wing groups, including the Sunrise Movement, Black Spring CLE and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Jonathan Roy heard about the protest online from Black Lives Matter Cleveland. The 24-year-old, who plays drums for a church full time and moonlights at local breweries, said that growing up biracial in East Cleveland, he had himself experienced police abuse.

“I got pulled over in a suburban area,” he said. Police cursed at him, and “made me do a sobriety test for no reason, in the cold, while it was snowing.”

“I almost got six months in jail and a $1000 fine for nothing,” he said. The charges against him were eventually dropped.

Roy said he was also jolted by the 2014 killing of Tamir Rice, a Black 12-year-old who was shot by Cleveland police while playing with a toy gun. Rice’s killing was among those that spurred the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement that year, and it continues to be a driving force for organizers in the city to this day.

When it comes to the election, Roy said he plans to vote for Biden.

“Personally, I’m not into government. But someone has to step up and do something,” he told FRANCE 24.

‘Issues-first voters’

Among those Gen Z voters who support Trump, many are just as mobilized as their left-wing counterparts and have garnered a dedicated following online. On the social media platform TikTok, Trump fans rally around hashtags like #SocialismSucks, bashing progressive icons like Sanders and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

YouTube, the most widely used social media app among teens, has served as a recruiting ground for the far right. And across various channels, well-funded youth groups like Talking Points USA use aggressive new tactics to champion longstanding conservative causes.

In Cleveland, Lexie Hall, the 19-year-old spokesperson for the anti-abortion group Created Equal, carried a placard displaying a graphic image of an aborted foetus. Gathered with about a dozen other activists, she said their group “seeks to make abortion unthinkable in our culture”.

Hall said she was planning to vote for Donald Trump, whom she called “the only pro-life candidate”.

When asked whether there was any contradiction between being pro-life and supporting a candidate who has overseen one of the deadliest years in US history, Hall answered: “Really, for me, abortion is the main thing. If a candidate is pro-abortion, I’m not going to be able to vote for them.”

The sentiment reflects one area where Hall finds common ground with her progressive peers: They’re driven at least as much by issues as by party affiliation.

An open letter to Biden from a coalition of eight progressive, youth-led groups in April spelled it out plainly.

“Young people are issues-first voters,” the groups wrote. “Exclusively anti-Trump messaging won’t be enough to lead any candidate to victory. We need you to champion the bold ideas that have galvanized our generation and given us hope in the political process.”