Low Turnout in the Democratic Primaries Among Young Voters Should be a Wake-Up Call

Corey Seemiller
Mar 4 · 7 min read

I’ve been studying Generation Z (born 1995–2010) since members of this generation began reaching adulthood in 2013. I’ve written books and articles, conducted major studies, and even given a talk at TEDxDayton about this generation. I teach Gen Z-ers, study Gen Z-ers, and parent a Gen Z-er. Let’s just say I care deeply about this generation. But, I also care deeply about politics and civic engagement; that all people should have their voices heard and represented in our government. That is why I worked tirelessly with my co-collaborator, Meghan Grace, to put together a study to better understand what those in Generation Z really think of and believe about politics. This was not just a candidate poll to hit the news waves that same afternoon. This was a deep exploration into the hearts, minds, and souls of this generation.

Given our strong beliefs in the importance of voting, we set out to uncover what might help get Gen Z to the polls; not to vote for a particular candidate, but to conscientiously vote at all. We conducted our study and put together the Gen Z Voices on Voting Report, capturing the political sentiment of this generation.

While there are many takeaways from this report, one of the most significant for me was that Generation Z is not one-dimensional. These young people are complex and nuanced with breadth and depth in their concerns, going beyond the obvious issues put forth by candidates. For example, offering free college education to a group of individuals who have already taken out student loans seems like an idea coming a little too late. Forgiving all student loans might be a draw, but that is an expensive proposition that also doesn’t seem to get to the heart of the entirety of what these young people care about. While certainly the rising cost of higher education needs to be addressed, reducing this generation, in particular, to a few baited issues paints them in a way that is far too simplistic.

Those in Generation Z want a president who is ethical and caring, who truly sees and feels the American experiment. Many Gen Z-ers identify as futurists seeing productive policy changes as those being beneficial for the future of society. Hearing candidates focus on days long-ago and their previous voting records is not inspiring or informative for a generation who has a lot more future to live than a past to reflect on.

They want a president who believes the environment is not humans’ to denigrate or profit from and that human rights and social justice are essential for the true functioning of a democracy. Gen Z-ers care deeply about the economy, not just for their own benefit but also for the benefit of all. They want a balanced budget and a fair taxation system. And, most importantly, they don’t want to shoulder the financial burden in the future of older people on a spending spree today.

While we know that our candidate pool on both the Republican and Democrat sides are older…much older, it is not age that is at issue here. It is the ability to relate to what it is like to be a young person in 2020 and not in 1960. Although the candidates won’t have the same lived experience as our Gen Z-ers, they can listen — truly listen.

We have now surpassed Super Tuesday, where a large number of delegate votes have been distributed. Sixteen states have already held their primaries, and the Democratic field has winnowed.

And unsurprisingly, the turnout for young adults is abysmally low. While they tend to vote at much lower rates than those who are older, the percentage of young voters as an overall percentage of the voting bloc has decreased between 2016 and 2020.

What is also interesting is that turnout is not just a Gen Z issue; Millennial voting numbers are lower as well. In comparing CNN exit polls from 2016 and 2020 (and two entrance polls*) from the states that have voted to date, there are some stark findings.

Other than the Iowa Caucuses, comparing the percentage of total voters in the 18–24 year-old age range in both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries, percentages decreased in eight states, remained the same in 2 states (Massachusetts and Vermont), and did not increase in any state. The margin of change ranges from 1 point to 5 points.

The difference between 25–29 year-olds in 2016 and 2020 is also significant. Eight states decreased in percentages ranging from a drop of 1 point to 4 points. Two states remained the same (Iowa and Virginia), and only one state had an increase: Nevada. Similar to the findings for the 18–24 year-old voters, the only state with an increase for this age group was a state with caucuses.

In looking at younger Millennials who were in the 18–24 year-old age range in 2016 and now in the 25–29 year-old age range in 2020, the differences in percentages are also telling. Nine states had a drop ranging from 2 to 6 points, and only one state, Vermont, held at the same rate.

While candidates should focus on connecting and relating to young voters, we all need to heed the call to encourage them to vote. In our Gen Z Voices on Voting Report, we share a number of ideas that may be able to help increase Generation Z voter turnout. Although our study and our call to action focused on Gen Z specifically, we would be remiss to ignore young Millennials who could benefit from some of these ideas as well.

Parents and Family Members

  • Talk about the importance of voting and how the electoral process works.
  • Build in time to discuss current political issues, even if you and your Gen Z-er see these issues differently.
  • If your Gen Z-er is not old enough to vote, make sure to bring them with you on Election Day so they can see voting in action.
  • Attend a campaign event with your Gen Z-er.
  • Watch the debates together.
  • If your Gen Z-er is of voting age, encourage them to complete their voter registration and vote on Election Day.
  • Go to the polls together.

Educators

  • Help Gen Z students get informed on issues by engaging in discussions and activities about current events.
  • Include a short, grade-appropriate, non-partisan lesson on the importance of voting and how to register to vote.
  • Have students research candidates and then hold a mock election where they can vote to elect a leader. Afterward, hold a debriefing session to discuss how students made their decision and what information they used to do so.
  • Have students study an issue relevant to the upcoming election by analyzing multiple sources with opinions.
  • Have students learn about their local candidates by sharing websites, news stories, and biographies of each candidate with them.
  • Hold voter registration drives on campus to ensure that students are able to vote in elections.
  • For Gen Z-ers of voting age, arrange transportation and carpooling options for students to go to a voting location together.
  • Celebrate the act of voting on campus with programming and special events.

Supervisors

  • Host a non-partisan professional development session for employees about understanding the electoral process, issues impacting the upcoming election, and an overview of candidates (local and national).
  • Allow for a company-wide late start, early end time, or elongated lunch break so Gen Z-ers can have time to vote.
  • Hold a non partisan celebration at work with coffee and snacks to celebrate voting and civic engagement.

Candidates

  • Create short, engaging YouTube videos about the causes you care about.
  • Be active on social media, not just about your candidacy but about your day-to-day life as well.
  • Engage in authentic, face-to-face interactions with Gen Z-ers.
  • Hold focus groups with Gen Z-ers and truly listen to their concerns.
  • Highlight examples of being an ethical leader and how you would commit to leading ethically.
  • Share ideas about how you could truly plan to engage in bipartisanship.
  • Don’t dismiss, re-route, or avoid tough questions. Tell your truth and own up to mistakes or failures.
  • Make sure you are transparent around the issues they care about most — what are your opinions and what would be your policies?

Gen Z-ers

  • Take online quizzes to see which candidates you align with, based on the issues you care most about.
  • Host a politics party where you discuss issues with your friends — not to strive for agreement but to help each other understand various sides of each issue.
  • Text your friends to remind them about voter registration deadlines.
  • Consider signing up for early voting and take the time to look through the ballot carefully at home before mailing it in.
  • Register to vote and make sure you double-check that your voter registration has been processed and you know your polling location.
  • If you are working, talk with your supervisor ahead of time to request time to vote during the workday, if needed.
  • Schedule a large block of time on Election Day, if you plan to vote in person, so you make sure to get to the polls in plenty of time.
  • Assemble your group of friends and go to the polls together.
  • Bring the required identification to the polls so that you ensure that you are able to vote.

Unless we can all come together to support and encourage young people to vote, both Gen Z and Millennials might just stay home.

For more information, go to www.thegenzhub.com

References

https://www.cnn.com/election/2016/primaries/polls/va/dem

https://www.cnn.com/election/2020/entrance-and-exit-polls/

The Gen Z Hub

Stay up to date on the latest on Generation Z and politics, the economy, jobs, education, technology, health, and relationships.

Corey Seemiller

Written by

Dr. Corey Seemiller is an award-winning professor and author of four books on Generation Z, including Generation Z: A Century in the Making.

The Gen Z Hub

Stay up to date on the latest on Generation Z and politics, the economy, jobs, education, technology, health, and relationships.

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