Do Youth Really Have Power at the Polls?

Kate Goss

March 25 2022

At Preston-Werner Ventures we’re diving into the roles that youth are playing in building and strengthening democracy. Here we share stories of how they are modernizing polling places, building campaigns based on issues they care about, and delivering election-winning margins. How can you help? Read ahead to see our ranking of best groups and geographies to support.

High School Students Run PA Youth Vote Registration Table

When high school senior Sheyla Street showed up to work the polls this past general election day, she faced a tough crowd, not of impatient voters but of senior poll workers who had bonded into a tight-knit pack over years of shared service. “The start of the day was rocky,” she noted, but the technical skills Sheyla brought to the team eventually won them over. Sheyla, currently a cyber science major at West Point, had completed the online training and came prepared to work with the new, technologically complex, voting machines that lined the hall and intimidated the seasoned crew. Her technological fluency enabled her to manage the machines while bringing the others up to speed. Sheyla noticed how the crew gradually came to value her skills and “at the end of the day they were happy I was there.”

Ryan Pierannunzi, WorkElections Project Manager at Fair Elections Center, wouldn’t be surprised by this change of heart. WorkElections recruits younger poll workers precisely for the gifts they bring to this essential democratic task, so Ryan speaks from experience when he explains, “Youth poll workers tend to be tech-savvy, more likely to be bi-lingual, and capable of long hours, all traits that make them great additions to poll working teams generally dominated by senior citizens.”

That youthful level of energy came in handy during Sajda Adam’s experience as a poll worker in Philadelphia her senior year of high school. Sajda spoke to PWV about her election work from Drexel University where she is currently a psychology and pre-med major, highlighting that her “school wanted everyone to be very civically engaged and they worked very hard for it for two years prior to the presidential election.” Sajda described a seamless transition into poll working following two years experience in PA Youth Vote through her school, where members engaged in intense education and advocacy campaigns while registering peers at every opportunity. She signed up for the election to “continue the work of being civically engaged- and because I could.” Inspired by the civic culture at her school nearly everyone who was of age in the club signed up as well, around twenty students from this school alone.

Laughing at the memory, Sajda led with how she slept for twelve hours straight after election day. Her assigned suburban polling site had an intensely busy atmosphere with a constant stream of people. “There were times when it kind of slowed down a little and you could take a break and eat something real quick” but for a friend working at a polling place downtown “there were lines around the block. Mine was busy, but hers was another level.” For the entire 12-hour voting day they were on their feet helping people exercise their right to vote.

In our correspondence, Ryan Pierannunzi highlighted a case study showing how youth poll workers “helped to make the election process smoother and more accessible for voters” and this held true for Sheyla’s site as well. In between managing voter machines, she noticed odd huddles bubbling up at the sign-in tables. If a person was unsure where they should vote, the older poll workers would gather and try their best to remember the most likely site and then give verbal directions- go three blocks past the grocery store near the park and turn right. Watching closely, she realized that they were entirely unfamiliar with QR codes and the district supplied instructions and maps were going unused. Sheyla demonstrated how voters could use these QR codes to confirm their correct site and get directions on their phones, freeing up election workers and quickly getting the correct information to those in line. Her up-to-date online training also helped ensure eligible voters weren’t turned away, giving her the base to confidently advocate for voters with “inactive” next to their name to cast their ballots in the election. Recognizing her contributions to the team, Shelya confirmed the need for youth poll workers since “at the end of the day, we need new people because times change and issues change.”

Intriguing early studies show that youth poll workers may also draw peers to the polls, increasing the clout of youth voters. Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) released Understanding the Benefits of Young People Serving as Poll Workers in 2021. Among other interesting observations rising from this Minnesota-based analysis is this graph showing significant increases in voter turnout among the youngest voters when there is a high level of student election judges. This held true even in more diverse precincts with historically lower voter turnout.

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While youth have historically been a bloc with lower relative participation, that may be changing in a significant way. Mike Burns, National Director of the Campus Vote Project at Fair Elections Center, makes that case. He points out that “Young people are not apathetic to democracy. There were massive increases in youth voter turnout in 2018 and 2020. Increases that were so large they actually outpaced increases in the overall electorate, leading to a shrinking in the traditional turnout gap between younger and older voters.” Specific data from CIRCLE’s analysis backs up that observation:

Our calculations, based on votes counted as of November 18, suggest that 52%-55% of voting-eligible young people, ages 18-29, cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election. Using the same methodology and data from a week after the election in 2016, we had previously estimated that youth voter turnout in 2016 was 42-44%.

Youth are engaged, working, and starting to show up in real numbers. Maintaining momentum would make youth voters an important bloc.

With the increasing youth vote it makes sense for those of us focused on electing progressive candidates as champions for climate policies to dig into whether more youth voters is an unalloyed good. Are youth voting for candidates who will help or hinder? And if the overall youth vote supports climate candidates, are they really voting in numbers large enough to make a difference?

2020 election results reveal a clear answer. CIRCLE reports “their impact—especially youth of color's overwhelming support for Biden—was decisive in key races across the country.” We can see this in comparing the net youth votes and winning vote margins in essential states.

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Notably, “While white youth voted for Biden by a slim margin (51% to 45%), youth of color gave him overwhelming support, ranging from 73% among Latino youth to 87% among Black youth. In fact, in states like Georgia and Arizona, Black and Latino youth may have single-handedly made Biden competitive.” We saw this trend in the Georgia Senate run-off races as well, making youth voters a decisive force behind the Democratic control of the Senate. As for climate, polls show youth are indeed a climate-centered constituency.

Emerging, progressive youth electoral power has not gone unnoticed. Mike Burns’ work reducing barriers to youth voting through Campus Votes Project makes him intensely aware of the fundamental challenges youth face in voting even before the emerging youth voter suppression movement. His insights are worth unpacking. He starts with the need for updating our system to eliminate barriers that skew ballot access towards privilege:

Young voters are however systematically suppressed in their political engagement efforts, and as each new generation in the U.S. is more diverse than the one that preceded, this suppression happens at the intersection of their age and newness to the political process along with their race, ethnicity, and gender. Younger voters are digital natives, newer to the political process, and are far more mobile and much less likely to own a car, yet registration and voting are still largely paper and postal-based systems designed for individuals who own a home and a car.

Dedicated to expanding ballot access, Mike describes a disturbing trend of states weaponizing registration requirements, targeting youth voters to reduce their electoral impact:

Instead of acknowledging that we have a responsibility to design systems that meet each new wave of youth voters where they are and welcome them into our system of self-governance, there is an active effort by a fraction of states where a radical minority is trying to maintain a majority of political power through voter suppression. This can be starkly seen in the direct attacks on student voters through frequent efforts to prevent the use of student IDs as voter ID across North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, Montana, Tennessee, Arizona, Iowa, Idaho, and others.

While the challenge is frustrating and formidable, he respects the depth of the issues that compel young voters to continue their work:

Yet young people are not deterred, they are at the forefront of movements to address climate change, gun violence, and racial justice. If the voting rights community can continue to advance its multi-generational struggle to protect and expand access to our democracy then young voters have the knowledge, passion, and numbers to reshape our political landscape to successfully address the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Youth activists like Sadja and Sheyla are prepared to meet the challenges of this moment. Along with their peers and mentors they have been advocating for community issues, engaging their communities in voting, and showing up consistently for the hard work of doing democracy. Woven throughout their conversation and motivating them through challenging experiences was the fundamental idea that “in order to make change we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable because that’s just part of the process.”

Inspired to join them? Check out our election analysis below for ways to support youth voters make a difference in essential state elections coming up this fall while also positioning youth voters to make an impact in 2024.

The Building Power of Youth Voters

Youth voters made a decisive difference in the 2020 election, significantly increasing their turnout and voting overwhelmingly for Biden. They came through again in the runoff election for senators in Georgia, casting ballots with a significant Democratic margin to give control of the Senate to Democrats. In 2022 we have the opportunity to maintain and build on that momentum by supporting organizations that will not only register and mobilize young voters in key states but also build lasting programs to strengthen voting among this key climate-centered constituency. Among all the many needs this year has brought to our attention, supporting youth voters is one that can help make long term changes that we need. We hope you will take a moment to look through the places and organizations that we feel are best positioned to make this a reality, and perhaps join us in funding their work.

PWV Youth Election Analysis

We feel that these states, and the organizations mentioned, reflect the best opportunity for youth to influence critical 2022 elections and build progressive power for the long term.

At the base of our analysis is the Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. This index “provides a data-driven ranking of the top 10 races where young voters have the highest potential to influence election results” in key 2022 Governor and Senate races. We then focused on YESI states with down ballot climate-critical races and looked for the greatest potential impact on climate change education. We matched these with strong organizations engaged in registering and motivating youth voters for this fall’s election and building youth voter infrastructure for long term power in the process.

Pennsylvania

#1 on the YESI for both Governor and Senate, Pennsylvania also ranks high on our impact list for down ballot climate-critical races and education, making the youth vote even more essential. YESI data shows that in 2020, PA “youth voted for President Biden by a 27 point margin, giving him a net advantage of more than 150,000 youth votes in a race decided by less than 35,000 votes.”

Pennsylvania is in the midst of adopting updated climate education standards, with a plan to implement them in 2024. In a state where the Governor appoints 17 of the 21 state board of education members and the Secretary of Education, democratic control of the office is critical to the success of this program.

Pennsylvania youth are rising to the challenge. The Sunrise Movement has a dedicated state director to focus energy on the election, with chapters at colleges and towns around the state. PA Youth Vote is expanding programs in high schools and neighborhoods to register the newest voters, re-energize and reconnect with voters, and engage youth in GOTV efforts, including working the polls.

Support: Sunrise Movement, PA Youth Vote, Adopt a High School (PA Youth Vote)

Arizona

Arizona, coming at #2 on the YESI for Governor and #5 for Senate, also has climate-critical down ballot races in which youth votes could make all the difference. In 2020 Arizona youth preferred President Biden by an overwhelming 31-point margin in a state that was decided by less than half a percentage point, according to the YESI. Young Latinos played a critical role in that election and will be important again in 2022.

This election also has significant implications for education as the governor appoints members of the state board of education and the chief state school officer is elected on a partisan ballot. Arizona recently received a C ranking for its climate change education standards, and needs to gain the Governor's office and retain the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to stabilize education and create the possibility of meaningful climate change education standards.

It’s easy to see why the Fair Elections Center has chosen Arizona to bring their Campus Vote Project statewide. This should increase youth registration and engagement this fall and for the long term in a strategically important state. Locally, RAZE Arizona has done amazing work with rural youth high school aged voters, and they are well worth supporting as they continue to build local infrastructure and power.

Support: Fair Elections Center, RAZE AZ

Georgia

Georgia has the attention of the nation once again, with both a crucial Senate seat to retain and an opportunity to win the governorship, ranked 4th and 5th on the YESI. State and legislative primaries and general election seats add to the importance of this midterm election.

2022 also has implications for climate change education. In Georgia the governor appoints the State Board of Education and the chief state school officer is elected on a partisan ballot. This State School Superintendent serves as executive officer of the State Board of Education- which oversees standards adoption. Since Georgia recently earned an F in a national assessment of climate change curriculum, gaining the office of State School Superintendent represents a golden opportunity to improve and implement climate change education. Should the candidate emerging from the Democratic primary and Abrams win it would be the first time in decades these offices were aligned.

Fortunately, youth in Georgia have a history of turning out that goes deeper than the most recent special election. The YESI highlights this, noting that “young people in the state make up an above-average 17% of the population, and they had one of the top 10 turnout rates of any state in the country in the 2018 midterms.” Youth are poised to maintain and build on their momentum through the Future Coalition’s expansive registration and GOTV organizing, as well as the Fair Election Center’s growth in campus registration and GOTV efforts.

Support: Fair Elections Center, Future Coalition

Wisconsin

With a #2 ranking for Senator and #4 for Governor, Wisconsin’s YESI analysis shows the importance of youth in this Midwestern state. The YESI states “Wisconsin is also an above-average youth registration (68%) state and, historically, a high turnout state. In 2020, the state’s young voters preferred President Biden by 23 points in a state that was decided by less than 1 percentage point” which makes investment in youth turnout key to 2022. While retaining the Governor’s office and winning a Senate seat are critical, across the state there are local, down ballot races that will be essential to building power for progressive change. Wisconsin delegates much to local governance, including education decisions.

The youth of Wisconsin are ready to take this on. Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) is doing the hard work of organizing and building out youth voter infrastructure, centering minority youth and their school experiences to build a voter base that is engaged and experienced in creating change. They are also embracing groups traditionally left out of many programs: youth not enrolled in schools, labor unions, and Spanish and Hmong speaking poll workers. This broad and inclusive base-building should serve well in this and future elections.

Support: Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT)

Ohio

While #9 on the YESI for the open senate seat, we observed unusually high and sustained engagement among Ohio's Sunrise Movement Hubs. This capacity, plus the potentially high impact on Ohio's down ballot climate impacting races, raises Ohio's ranking in our list. Additionally, Ohio's climate change education curriculum has earned a D in a nationwide analysis. 5 of 11 seats on the state school board are open this election, and changing the board is a precursor to adopting an effective climate change curriculum.

Support: Sunrise Movement

Michigan

With climate champion Governor Whitmer running for reelection and down ballot races with high environmental justice potential, Michigan is definitely a state to support youth action. Michigan youth votes for Biden totaled 194,000—higher than the statewide margin of victory of 148,000- and harnessing that enthusiasm is key for these midterms.

Additionally, 2 of the 8 state school board seats are up for election in a body that recently thwarted a radical anti-CRT bill. Every seat counts!

Support: Sunrise Movement

North Carolina

With an open Senate seat race, a #3 YESI ranking, and down ballot environmental justice races, North Carolina is a state to support both for this year and looking forward to 2024.

For this longer term progressive youth power building we’re excited to see the Sunrise Movement engaged in a Green New Deal table network, canvassing and doing distributive organizing with local partner organizations. Along with focused training and scaffolded support for hubs, this should create a strong and experienced youth base for 2024.

Support: Sunrise Movement

We appreciate the deep work our grantees have been doing to support and develop this range of youth civic engagement. We hope you will check out PA Youth Vote along with the Campus Vote Project and WorkElections programs at Fair Elections Center and be as inspired by their efforts as we are.