Young Voters Are the Superheroes of Democracy

Democratic candidates must listen to the demands of young voters and inspire greater numbers to vote than ever before if we are going to save democracy from the rise of right-wing authoritarianism.
Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan / Creative Commons.

Written by Dakota Hall

The 2022 midterms are less than two months away and democracy itself is on the line. It may be our last chance to save democracy from the rise of rightwing authoritarianism.

Winning means doing everything possible to keep far-right populists from reaching the House, Senate and governors’ mansions, and electing secretaries of state and attorneys general throughout the country who are committed to democracy. It also requires that Democratic candidates listen to the demands of young voters and inspire greater numbers to vote than ever before. 

For the past two election cycles, young voters have been the superheroes of our democracy. In 2018, they turned out in record numbers to take back Congress from Trumpism. In 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic and widespread economic uncertainty, half of all young people aged 18 to 29 voted, an increase of 11 percent from 2016. Young voters saved the country from a second Trump term, and then helped puttwo Democrats from Georgia into the U.S. Senate.

But we did not stop there: Young people worked incessantly to protect democracy. Through efforts like the Alliance for Youth Action’s  “Democracy Done Right” campaign, youth organizers have passed voting rights legislation and expanded youth voting options throughout the country. During the 2018 midterms, for example, Engage Miami fought for and won early voting sites at Miami college campuses, while both New Era Colorado and Washington Bus secured ballot drop-off boxes on campuses across their respective states. When MOVE Texas expanded polling locations on Texas college campuses, there was a dramatic increase in student voter turnout. And in 2021, Forward Montana Foundation won a lawsuit to overturn a bill restricting access to the ballot for voters who turn 18 the month before Election Day. 

Much of this work was undone by radical GOP lawmakers at the state level, however. And Democrats in Congress failed to pass national voting rights protections, in part by wasting too much time negotiating with the very people who want to suppress our votes. 

Yet young voters keep showing up, despite our demands and concerns often being the first on the chopping block. Over the last two years, the voices of Gen Z and Millennial voters have made their voices heard at the White House and in Congress. But while President Joe Biden campaigned on canceling a portion of student debt, he dragged his feet until this summer to make it a reality. It took continuous pressure from youth organizers, many of them in the Alliance for Youth Action Network, to force the Biden Administration to act. 

Let’s be clear: $10,000 is not enough to address the racial wealth gap exacerbated by the student debt crisis. We are celebrating this initial win, but we want candidates who are committed to doing more. The measure of success should not be “did we do something?” but “did we fix the problem?” 

In a recent poll conducted by the Alliance for Youth Action, in collaboration with Civiqs, 88 percent of young Democratic voters in battleground states said they plan to vote in November. But polls don’t vote; people do. And the Democratic Party has some work to do. In our poll, young Democratic and Independent voters voiced deep dissatisfaction with both Biden and Congress.

Our poll makes clear that actual turnout will depend not on party affiliation but on the moral clarity and bold, unapologetic stances that candidates bring to critical priorities such as democracy reform and voting rights, abortion rights and student debt. 

Young people are constantly told that if we just turn out to vote, it will change the country. And since 2018, we have done just that. Yet during that time, we have seen relatively little progress on the issues most important to us. You need us — the country needs us—to vote in November. In turn, we expect to see tangible action and commitments from the candidates who want our votes. 

This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

Dakota Hall is the executive director of Alliance for Youth Action, a national network of local organizations that works with young people to engage in our democracy as voters, organizers, and leaders.

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