In November, Nathen Avelar of Merced, California, will have his first opportunity to vote in a federal election, and the 18-year-old musician and youth organizer says that he plans to seize it, casting a ballot that, he hopes, will help move both his community and his country toward the kind of future he wants for both.
The election, in which millions of voters like Avelar will be able to cast a ballot for the first time, will determine the control of both houses of the United States Congress, as well as state legislatures, governorships, and other state level offices.
Voters will also decide on a variety of state-level referenda, such as a proposed amendment to the state constitution in California that would guarantee women the right to abort a pregnancy. The proposal is a direct response to the decision by the Supreme Court earlier this year to strip away legal protections for abortion rights at the federal level — an issue very much on the minds of many Americans headed to the polls in November.
Avelar, who recently graduated from high school, became active in local politics during a successful effort to persuade the Merced City Council to adopt a new affordable housing policy. Now, affiliated with the activist group Power California, he is helping to register other young voters and to persuade them to go to the polls on November 8.
Young voters, Avelar told VOA, are concerned about a variety of issues, but one thing that drives many, he said, is the desire to see more diversity among elected officials. Generation Z, the cohort of Americans born roughly between 1990 and the early 2010s, are the most diverse generation in U.S. history, and right now, they do not see that reflected in the makeup of political leadership, at either the local or federal level.
“Not being able to see people in the spaces that we want to see ourselves in, specifically our city council, or just in general in seats of power, that’s definitely been a huge driver for me,” he said. “And other people that I’ve worked with are very passionate about that as well.”
He also said that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn its previous ruling in Roe v. Wade, the case that guaranteed abortion rights, has been a major motivator.
“The attack on our general rights, just as people, from the Supreme Court has been really concerning to me, specifically around reproductive rights … that is really what’s been driving me,” he said.
While many young voters like Avelar have policy positions that generally bring them in line with the Democratic Party, Generation Z is no monolith. Research by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) finds that about one in three voters between 18 and 29 is motivated by conservative convictions that place them more in line with the Republican Party.
That’s the case for Zach Bauder, a junior at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. The president of his school’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a national conservative organization, Bauder told VOA in an email exchange that he and his fellow conservatives have a long list of issues driving them to the polls.
For example, he said, the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling has been a major motivating factor among conservatives, many of whom support restricting or banning the procedure. Other issues animating young conservatives include the pace of migration to the United States and efforts to accommodate transgender Americans.
‘Doubling down’ on Roe
“What motivates me to vote is what motivates most young conservatives,” Bauder wrote. “We care about doubling down on the end of Roe and enacting pro-life legislation. We want to close the border, ensure election integrity, end COVID-related mandates, and oppose the gender dysphoria ideology promulgated in America’s education system.”
“Gender dysphoria” is a diagnosed psychological disorder describing the distress or discomfort experienced by a person who feels that the gender they were assigned at birth does not reflect the gender they experience or express. Many conservatives in the U.S. object to accommodations made for individuals who assert a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, particularly in schools.
Bauder said his fellow young conservatives also want to see an end to “endless wars that have nothing to do with America’s security” and to push back against what they see as “the cultural degradation of our country over the past several decades.”
Bauder said that he is seeing more interest in this midterm election among his cohort than he did in 2018. Partly, he said, it is a factor of major changes happening in the country right now, but he believes it is also due to young conservative voters waking up to their own power to influence the direction of the conservative movement.
“My generation, I believe, is beginning to see it can make a difference in the conversation happening on the right,” he said.
The presence of highly energized young voters in this election cycle is undeniable, but just how deeply that enthusiasm runs is an open question. Typically younger voters do not vote as reliably as older generations, particularly in years like 2022, when there is no presidential election to focus peoples’ attention.
“The hard fact is that turnout for young people, if you just take ages 18 to 24, is much lower than older age groups, particularly 65-plus,” Mindy Romero, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy, told VOA. “Depending on the type of election it can be 20, 30, 40 percentage points lower.”
The problem is not that young Americans are disengaged, Romero said, but that they often don’t see much utility in voting.
“It’s not that they’re apathetic; they care very much,” she said. “It’s that they often don’t see why voting is an actionable step on issues that they care about. So there may be young people that are galvanized by the issue of abortion, for instance. Some of those will take some action steps. They’ll protest, they’ll organize people’s opinions on social media, that sort of thing. But it doesn’t always translate into voting.”
Higher participation possible
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of Tufts University’s CIRCLE program, agreed that voting among young people will continue to lag behind older generations in 2022, but she did point to some factors that might increase it somewhat.
She noted that in Kansas, which had a primary election in August in which a statewide abortion ban was on the ballot, a surge in new voter registration was followed by a much larger turnout than in previous primaries.
“Usually young people have a really low participation rate, as far as we can estimate, in primaries,” she told VOA. “But a record number of young people came out and the ratio of new registrants … was overwhelmingly young women.”
If the abortion issue continues to drive young voters to the polls, she said, their participation might also be increased by the fact that a number of states have, in recent years, passed rules simplifying the process of registering to vote or simply automatically registering eligible voters.
“That’s a big win, because voter registration is, of course, a necessary step to voting, and it’s actually the harder step, a lot of times, because you need to provide some documentation that young people may not have [at] their fingertips.”
Many young people, she pointed out, don’t yet have official forms of identification. “If you don’t have a driver’s license already, which a lot of young people don’t, that’s quite a barrier,” she said.
Having a plan
Aurora Castellanos, director for statewide campaigns with Power California, said that in working with young people, her group tries to stress the importance of having a plan to vote. Especially for first time voters, the process can feel complicated, she said, so it is important to thinking it through in advance.
“In most cases, folks don’t even have a voting plan,” she told VOA. “They don’t know how they’re going to be returning their ballot, or what the process is like to be able to do that.”
Castellanos added, “We start prompting them to actually put together a voting plan—that’s part of the engagement that we do. We go from, ‘What is the time when you’re going to be turning it?’ to ‘How are you going to be getting to your polling location, so that you have a plan on how you’re going to be making that happen?’ And we think that really makes a difference.”