Op-ed: Young people are poised for record turnout in 2020

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ByBrent J. Cohen
Originally Published: 

Young people today are facing a perfect storm poised to devastate youth voter turnout. As the United States continues to grapple with the worst pandemic in over a century, many college campuses — prominent sites for voter registration and get out the vote efforts — are remaining closed for the fall and traditional in-person organizing has all but halted. As states rightly transition to online voter registration and vote-by-mail efforts to protect voters during the pandemic, huge information gaps have arisen among young people, especially young people of color. And this all comes on top of the existing structural barriers that have negatively impacted young voters for decades. For these reasons and more, it would be understandable to expect abysmal youth voter turnout in the coming election. And yet, I predict just the opposite — that young voters will vote in record numbers this November, surpassing the mark set by young voters in 1972.

Millennials and members of Generation Z are often derided and dismissed as unlikely voters. In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, one Yale professor went so far as to say that today’s 18-year-olds should lose their right to vote altogether. The reality is that young people face consistent structural barriers to casting their votes, which is one of the main reasons why 18- to 24-year-olds, dating back to the 1970s — when Baby Boomers were in that age bracket—have voted at lower rates than older Americans. This election cycle feels different though. Young people are leading a nationwide racial justice movement while also facing an economic crisis that is disproportionately impacting their livelihoods — and they have demonstrated over the last few years that they are motivated to make their voices heard.

Not everyone shares my optimism. When Joe Biden launched his campaign for president over a year ago, pundits eagerly lined up to question his ability to engage and motivate young voters. Even now, those think pieces continue to be written and pushed out, despite the fact that young voters have declared time and again that they support Biden over Trump by a more than two-to-one margin.

Even if Trump is a motivating factor this November — he’s far from the only reason that young people have to vote.

The common wisdom on youth voter turnout has been that young people aren’t necessarily motivated to vote by any one candidate or political party, but that they can be persuaded to turn out to vote for policies and issues that matter to them. That is still largely true. But this election is unique in that data suggests some young people may feel motivated to vote simply to remove Donald Trump from office.

But even if Trump is a motivating factor this November — he’s far from the only reason that young people have to vote. It’s no secret that Biden was not many young Democratic primary voters’ first choice for the nomination in 2020, but he is making significant strides to engage and mobilize young potential voters. In fact, his campaign now features the most progressive platform of any presidential candidate in history — a fact that was recently noted by the most well-known progressive of the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders, whose campaign earned significant support from young voters. If Biden is able to simultaneously win over disaffected Trump voters, as many analysts expect, and also generate enthusiasm among the young, largely progressive voters who represent 37% of the eligible 2020 electorate and the future of the Democratic party, he could garner the type of electoral victory that not only wins him the presidency, but also changes control of the Senate and gives his administration a clear legislative mandate from the voting public.

In such a scenario, young people would see a dramatic change in the type of legislation and action that would be considered within the realm of possibility. Biden recently announced an updated $2 trillion climate platform that has been lauded by progressive climate organizations like the youth-led Sunrise Movement. He has expanded his plan to address the student debt crisis using proposals put forward by his progressive primary rival, Elizabeth Warren. And last week, he unveiled a plan to confront systemic racism that acknowledges the issues elevated by leaders in the racial justice movement over the last several months, which — according to a recent poll from the Alliance for Youth Action — is a top issue for young Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters.


Finally, Biden has released a comprehensive and coherent plan to address the coronavirus pandemic and get people the relief they will need to survive this crisis, which has polled as the top issue among young Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters in battleground states. For so many young activists who have been fighting one draconian policy after another for the past three years, moving the starting line for their activism from basic survival to meaningful progress would be a huge relief.

This isn’t to say that campaigns that need young voter support can rest on their laurels — there are major hurdles that must be overcome, like structural barriers to voting and significant information gaps when it comes to online voter registration and mail-in voting. Young people and youth-serving organizations have demonstrated that they’re willing to show up to do the work — and they need campaigns and election officials at local, state, and federal levels to do the same.

Eighty-three percent of young people believe that they can change the world. In 2018, the country saw what these generations are capable of as voters when they set a 100-year high for youth voter turnout in a midterm election and their enthusiasm has only grown since then. In a panel hosted by Generation Progress Action last month, the executive director of Action St. Louis and leader in the Movement for Black Lives, Kayla Reed, said that young activists know that protest and politics go together and that by doing both — and doing both well — we’ll get to see some transformation. Young voters are certainly ready for transformation, which is why I believe they will show up this November.

Brent J. Cohen is the executive director of Generation Progress Action, a youth engagement and mobilization organization housed within the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Prior to joining Generation Progress Action, Cohen was a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) during the Obama administration.