In November 2020, young voters exercised their electoral power by turning out in record numbers to help Democrats win the White House and other key races. In 2021, however, an onslaught of voter suppression measures being enacted in statehouses could have an outsized impact on those young people, according to voting rights advocates.
“We’ve seen some pretty concerted efforts to push back against that new engagement from young voters,” says attorney Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director for Voting Rights and Elections at the Brennan Center for Justice.
The Brennan Center has reported that so far this year at least 18 states have enacted 30 laws to make it harder to vote, and more than 400 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in state legislatures.
Advocates say the increasingly burdensome requirements pose challenges for young people who are newer to electoral participation. Some of them, including college students, may not live in the place where they are registered to vote, making them especially vulnerable to new rules around residence requirements, forms of ID, mail voting, and online voting. They also are more likely to be affected by the closure of polling places.
Morales-Doyle cites two recent examples: a Montana bill requiring students who vote in person to have extra secondary documentation of residence in addition to a student ID, and a new measure in Texas that requires any voter that is sent a confirmation of residence notice to respond within 30 days and include a sworn affirmation.
We are coming off of historic highs, and sustaining that is going to be a challenge.
Young voters represent about one-fifth of all eligible citizens. Close to 50 million young voters were eligible to vote in 2020, and about half of them cast ballots, with the highest increases in youth voter turnout in New Jersey, Arizona, California, and Washington. No state saw a decrease in youth turnout from 2016 to 2020, according to Kelly Beadle, project director for the Independent Voter Registration Report at CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts. (CIRCLE defines young voters as those in the first 12 years of eligibility, 18-29 years old).
“We are coming off of historic highs, and sustaining that is going to be a challenge,” says Beadle. “There is no silver bullet.”
The 2020 record turnout did not happen by accident. It reflects intensive outreach by voting advocates who reject the old canard that youth are apathetic. While parties and candidates have their own get-out-the-vote campaigns, a growing number of nonpartisan organizations have been working to engage young voters and help them overcome the barrage of obstacles. For example, VoteRiders helps voters secure the form of identification required in their states.
Historically, much of the outreach to young voters took place on college campuses. That is starting to change.
“At Fair Fight, we always say we reach voters where they’re at,” says Hillary Holley, director of organizing at Fair Fight Action, the Georgia-based organization started by Stacey Abrams that seeks out voters overlooked in the past because they were considered unlikely to vote, many of whom are people of color and younger voters. Holley says outreach includes hyperlocal organizing like giving out food at a rural restaurant “where a young person might just literally be on the way to pick up some lunch, and all of a sudden they’re seeing something about voting.”
Fair Fight and other advocates also work with TikTok influencers, hold Instagram live concerts, and put ads on Hulu, YouTube, Snapchat, and other platforms populated by younger people.
“We leverage culture and technology to really use trusted messengers to reach young people where they are,” says Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote. “It’s important that we are combining multiple different strategies to reach the diverse youth that comprise this generation.”
The most recent Harvard Youth Poll found that 36% of the youth surveyed are politically active, and the most engaged among this cohort are young Black people, 41% of whom are politically active. In the 2020 election, voters under 30 preferred Biden, with young people of color voting for him by the largest margins, while young White men preferred Trump.
Young voters have so much power.
“Time and time again in 2020, with Black young people being shot and killed by the police and the uprisings that happened last summer, and voting rights under attack, young people showed up, even in the middle of a pandemic, to say enough is enough,” says Carmel Pryor, communications director of Alliance for Youth Action. “And when it came to the election, they took that energy from the streets to the ballot box, and a lot of the wins that we had were because they showed up.”
The alliance supports a network of partners and affiliates on the ground in about 20 states working to leverage the political power of young voices. For example, alliance affiliate MOVE (Mobilize Organize Vote Empower) Texas helped register 50,000 18- to 29-year-olds for the 2020 election in a state where a gun license is a proper form of ID for voting, but student ID is not.
“Texas is OK with gun owners voting, but not with students voting,” says Charlie Bonner, MOVE’s communications director. “They just can’t enough of these roadblocks in Texas. I didn’t think there was much more they could do, but I was incorrect.” (Last month Texas Democratic lawmakers left the state to block Republican colleagues from pushing through even more restrictive voting rules.)
Alliance partner Mississippi Votes organizes on college campuses and in rural areas along with using digital strategies. A music video posted last summer reached 10,000 young people in one day. At least half of them were not enrolled in schools, says Arekia Bennett, the executive director. The video was shared on Facebook first and then YouTube and reposted a few weeks before the November election.
After Mississippi Votes signs up young voters, Bennett says, it stays connected to assure they will be ready to vote. On Election Day, volunteers help people waiting in line making sure they have food and water and that port-a-potties are available. (In Georgia, state lawmakers passed a bill that would make it a crime to offer food or water to voters waiting in line).
Another alliance partner, Loud Light, runs programs on most major college campuses across Kansas and has an advocacy arm that works to oppose voter suppression bills before the legislature. But Loud Light founder Davis Hammet says one new Kansas measure has forced the organization to suspend all voter registration work. Hammet says the overly broad Kansas law that took effect July 1 provides that “if someone else even thinks you’re an election official, it’s a felony crime.” Loud Light and the League of Women Voters are seeking an injunction, but meanwhile fear arrest if they try to register voters.
“I’m very fearful of what could happen next year, especially if there’s no federal legislation to provide some protection,” says Hammet.
The federal legislation activists are pushing includes the For the People Act, which would help more Americans retain their voting rights, and the companion John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore and strengthen the federal oversight provisions stripped out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder.
“We can’t organize our way out of this. We’ve got to have federal legislation,” agrees Jesselyn McCurdy, managing director of government affairs at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, whose All Voting is Local campaign is working on the ground in eight states to combat voter suppression.
The For the People Act passed the House and is stymied in the Senate. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was introduced in the House on Aug. 17. McCurdy has testified at hearings to establish a legislative record of voting discrimination to help the act withstand anticipated court challenges.
To build support for the bills, the Leadership Conference launched The Voting Rights Alliance. Rock the Vote built a coalition running a campaign to mobilize young people with a peer-to-peer texting drive that reached 300,000 young voters. Fair Fight Action held a Hot Call Summer campaign with a goal of texting at least 10 million voters in battleground states.
Amid the fight for voting rights on so many fronts, Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center also cites a “countervailing trend in states that are doing voter-friendly things” that will help younger voters.
At least 25 states have enacted 54 laws with provisions that expand voting access, and more than 900 bills with expansive provisions have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions, according to the Brennan Center update. Friendly measures include automatic voter registration, preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, voter portability (where your registration goes with you if you move within a state), online voter registration and expanding access to early and mail voting. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 20 states and the District of Columbia had automatic voter registration as of last January.
Another positive tactic focuses on growing voters before they turn 18 through civic education. Rock the Vote, for example, runs a program called Democracy Class that offers free lesson plans to educators, community leaders, and anyone who wants to teach a class on the history and importance of voting.
“Young voters have so much power,” says Holley of Fair Fight Action. “I’m 29, and we are not in the minority anymore. If our vote didn’t matter, you know the Republican Party would not be coming out in historical force to strip away the right to vote. The fight doesn’t stop.”
Linda Kramer Jenning is an independent journalist and past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. She often writes about women and politics.