WASHINGTON — At 17 years old, Lily Gardner, didn’t feel she had a choice but to get involved with politics, but she’s not betting that the world will keep pushing young people to become political.
“My generation on the whole is being forced at an early age to grapple with issues like the climate crisis, like systemic gun violence,” said Gardner, who lives in Kentucky. “That has forced us on the whole to become politicized.”
She couldn’t join the older members of her generation who voted in November at historically high levels. But she’s working to keep young people engaged as the Kentucky coordinator for the climate-focused Sunrise Movement, working on using grassroots groups to talk to young people instead of “political entities swooping in at convenient times.”
Democrats have historically been more successful when young people show up — 65 percent of voters under 24 backed President Joe Biden, according to exit polls. And instead of waiting until the next election — or hoping a figure like Donald Trump emerges to get young people involved — liberal groups are trying to keep the country’s youngest voters engaged.
By the next presidential election, millennials will be entering their 40s, showing up to vote with kids instead of the youthful enthusiasm that helped Democrats in the 2010s.
The focus on young voters has turned to Generation Z.
It won’t be easy. Young people have always voted in lower numbers than their older cohorts. And with the oldest president in history sitting in the Oval Office, convincing them that the president and the party see their issues could be difficult.
The largest turnout of young people since the voting age was lowered to 18 — 52 percent to 55 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 — voted in the November election, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University estimates.
“As a country, we can do so much more to support young people to participate in democracy more than we do,” said Abby Keisa, the research center’s director of impact. She said the data found “that communities where young people vote, volunteer, help their neighbors and belong to groups or associations can be more prosperous and resilient places.”
Finding young people
Bushra Amiwala was 19 years old when she lost her first political campaign. Six months later, she ran again and won.
Amiwala thinks candidates and organizers like her are adapting to talk to young people.
“The way that we campaign is a huge testament to the shift that young people have been able to bring to the table,” said Amiwala, 23, who is a member of a school board in Chicago. “Social media is something that predominantly is used by young people, and mobilizing folks on there is something that, I think, is a tactic that young people championed and coined.”
But finding first-time voters can be tricky, because they often aren’t registered to vote and therefore aren’t on the rolls traditional political organizations use to find people.
Finding young voters of color, who face other systemic barriers to participation, can be even tougher.
Many of the inequalities and the shortage of civic engagement opportunities for younger people mirror the causes of other inequalities across the country, Keisa said. And unlike some other countries, the U.S. doesn’t have a civic and political framework set up to engage young people.
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That’s why groups like the Sunrise Movement are using other young people to do the outreach.
John Paul Mejia, 18, a spokesperson for the group, said he got involved in politics because “our future is on the line.”
He said blaming younger generations for not being more civically engaged is tired and misplaced.
“If organizations like ours — that actually hear the call of young people and are led by young people — didn’t engage them this electoral cycle, this election might have looked very different,” Mejia said.
‘Seeing through the bull’
Politics doesn’t stop after Election Day, and some organizations are trying to find ways to keep young people informed outside the rush of the political season.
A Starting Point, a video-based civic engagement organization, is trying to bring the politicians to young people in brief, straightforward videos that address policy debates. The videos feature Democrats and Republicans.
“We since found a way to try and demystify some of these issues, to make this arena a little more palatable for some people,” said Chris Evans, a co-founder of A Starting Point, who said about half of the platform’s users are under 24.
A Starting Point is growing the platform by directly connecting with young people through its new partnerships with the Close Up Foundation and Bridge USA. Both organizations work to engage young people in the classroom — discussing voting and civic engagement.
“There are a lot of issues that are ripe for young minds to explore, and again it’s not so much about whether or not the issues are directly affecting them today. It’s about getting them comfortable with it,” Evans said.
Mark Kassen, the other co-founder, said the organization will use its technology and expertise to create lessons for the classroom.
“One of the things that these last handful of election cycles show us is that there are a lot of people that just feel disconnected to the government,” Kassen said.
Groups like Brand New Congress have tried to pair young candidates with efforts to stoke energy among young voters, helping to elect members like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.
“We’ve got a Congress that does not represent the age makeup of our nation,” said Robb Ryerse, the group’s executive director. Ryerse said the passion of youth is often dismissed as idealism.
But Mejia said idealism is exactly the kind of thing to keep young people engaged.
“Young people are seeing through the bull— right now … whether you’re a candidate who supports people or profit margins,” Mejia said.