The privilege of voting in a free and fair election has been squandered by all but 36 percent of young voters (ages 18-29) in recent years, according to statistics from the US Census. For many fresh high school graduates, the election provides their first chance at adulthood and the opportunity to make a difference where it really matters. Studies by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement peg the number of eligible voters who came of age after the 2016 election at 15 million — more than enough to cause meaningful change. So then, why have polls traditionally experienced a dearth of young-adult voters? Perhaps more importantly, how can Generation Z put discredence to this detrimental trend?
Stereotypes reinforce the idea that young people have low voter turnout due to laziness and apathy, as well as a lack of knowledge of what’s on the ballot. This harmful image strays far from the truth; the obstacles in the way of young voters are in no way self-generated. Rather, the dichotomous pressures of school or work are often exacerbated by the struggle of living alone for the first time. “Young voters have a lot going on … many of them are newly in college or university,” explained Clare Corson, a Berkeley High School (BHS) junior in Academic Choice (AC) and co-leader of the BHS New Voters Club. “Elections are really intimidating; you don’t want to go in without understanding what you are voting for.” With the demands and complexities of even figuring out how and where to vote, it’s no wonder that comparatively few young voices grace the halls of democracy.
The particulars about voting can be difficult to find, resulting in “gatekeeping” of those unfamiliar to the system. With younger voters having to work harder to reach the ballot box, theirs is an often ignored demographic by politicians and candidates, creating a vicious cycle wherein feelings of underrepresentation lead to fewer young voters casting a vote and causing their opinions to be ignored.
BHS students have fought hard against these stereotypes and limitations. The BHS New Voters Club, which works to empower the youth vote by increasing voter registration, has often been assisted by an older crowd at the New Voters chapter at UC Berkeley. These college students, who already have faced the trials of voting for the first time, lend a hand with voting efforts. Additionally, BHS faculty have made a concerted effort to spread voter awareness, running annual mock elections and putting democracy in the hands of the students with the student government.
Due to its grappling with the many social issues that have risen into the limelight, Generation Z has been nicknamed ‘the activist generation.’ According to John Villavicencio, the director of leadership and student activities at BHS, “There is no comparison to the number of issues that current high school students have passionately expressed their support or dissatisfaction with… there is more activist energy in the world.” High schoolers have turned out to demonstrations in overwhelming numbers. Will this correlate with turnouts at voting booths? Villavicencio thinks so. “I believe that upcoming elections will draw high electorate ratios, because of all of this activism experience.”
As a vehicle for political change, social media has proven an effective way of galvanizing communities and spreading the word about controversies. Given its centrality to the character of Generation Z, it will likely be the defining factor in getting newly-eighteens out to vote.
In the digital age, it seems as though everyone is an influencer in their own way — reaching, at the minimum, a close-knit friend group of six, and, on the other end, a population of six thousand. “Because voting has become such a popular… practice in recent years, many take to their personal accounts to promote it,” explained UC Berkeley’s New Voters chapter. “Exposure to voting opportunities is almost inevitable.” With social media platforms allowing for messages to propagate around the globe within hours, the chance is high that social media tools will do more for voter turnout than any government measures.
Once, young voters were hamstrung by a lack of information and time to acquire it. “Now, with a mere web search, we are exposed to an infinite variety of beliefs and ideologies,” commented UC Berkeley’s New Voters. “All you need to do is take initiative.”