By Kate Perschke
The 2020 election may prove to have a historic turnout of young voters, with the conservative end of calculations showing 52% of eligible voters ages 18 to 29 years-old cast ballots, an eight-point increase from 2016, an analysis of election data shows.
This number rivals the 2008 presidential election, which set the record of highest young voter turnout since 1984, at 48% of 18-29 year olds. According to election data, young voters are estimated to have made up 17% of the electorate, at over 27 million votes in a year Barack Obama campaigned to young voters on a message of change.
In some counties nationwide, the 18-29 vote may have secured victory for President-elect Joe Biden; however, this does not necessarily correlate to young people’s approval. In a poll conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, only 30% of young Biden supporters were enthusiastic about voting for their candidate. A study in June found that Democratic voters ages 18-29 favored Sen. Bernie Sanders at 31% and Biden at 20%.
“I felt like I had no other choice than to vote for Biden,” said Sara Sifferman, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I just felt like putting another old white man in office wasn’t the best solution.”
According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), the national vote of 18-29 year-olds went to Biden with 61%, and 36% to President Donald Trump. Illinois saw similar numbers, with young people favoring Biden’s 61% to Trump’s 34%.
Illinois election officials reported the state set records, with early numbers of nearly 3.6 million votes cast and 1.76 million ballots mailed to election authorities. Additionally, this election saw a record number of voters register to vote – more than 8.3 million residents. As of Nov. 30, 5.9 million votes were cast, meaning 71% of registered voters participated in the election.
For Cook County voters, the presidential election was not the only important thing on the ballot. Among other questions, the amendment to the Illinois State Constitution implementing a graduated income tax and the retention election of Judge Michael Toomin were two of the most contested. The #TossToomin and #FairTaxNow campaigns gained lots of traction with young voters in Cook County, despite the failed outcomes.
Chicago Votes engaged young people digitally amid COVID-19 outbreak for a record breaking young voter turnout
Chicago Votes, a nonprofit civic engagement organization led by young people, has been working to reach those young voters. Alex Boutros, organizing manager for Chicago Votes, offered insight as to why so many young people were engaged in this election, saying the coronavirus outbreak demonstrated “all of the injustices and atrocities and inability for this country to support its community members.”
“I think people – especially every person who might not have voted because they were a waitress, because they were working … all those people who lost their jobs and weren’t supported now have plenty of time to think about voting,” Boutros said.
Chicago Votes was in the middle of Parade to the Polls, an initiative where the group takes eligible young voters to register and vote at the polls, when the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down.
“We planned a huge parade, like a huge citywide parade, [everybody] was going to be part of it,” Boutros said, “we were going to have high schools leading it, colleges, drag queens, bikers – anyone that wanted a section in the parade – and that just super didn’t happen. Because you can’t parade during a pandemic, unfortunately.”
Still, Boutros and Chicago Votes continued organizing and educating young people about voting through the digital sphere. The organization took advantage of social media, turning lectures and drinks at the bar into live streams and virtual happy hours.
Chicago Votes advocated for the jail to be a polling place, and were successful despite the growing concerns about COVID-19. Groups of members were still able to visit the jail to register voters but in a socially-distanced way that was much smaller than previous years.
Parade to the Polls, one of Boutros’ favorite Chicago Votes events, became remote: “Our high school and college engagement just had to look different. We were on student calls in classrooms, […] we created get out the vote activities, like how to engage your community and how to build your ballot.”
The work of Chicago Votes is not stopping now that the election is over. From court watching programs to holding elected officials accountable, Chicago Votes plans to keep young people engaged in civic engagement beyond the polls.
“Our county government [doesn’t] know how to engage young people,” Boutros said. “We will create a graphic that is much more engaging than the water reclamation commissioners will themselves.”
Public education is at the center of the organization’s next initiatives. Engaging voters in municipal elections and popularizing participation in them among young people is one of Boutros’ goals. In 2019, Chicago Votes hosted a mayoral forum for Chicago Public School high schoolers followed by a Parade to the Polls. Boutros said she hopes that this will become a precedent.
“Every four years we throw a huge forum where we make it a staple and a norm that if you’re running to be mayor of the city, that you must be directly accountable to Chicago Public School students,” she said.
Early unofficial counts on Election Day showed that Chicago’s young people led in the most ballots cast. Despite not turning out in as large of numbers as their older counterparts, young Chicagoans set records in the city.
Millennials, Gen Z turned out to be more engaged in social issues as seen in their turnout to vote
As of July 2019, 50.7% of the nation’s population is made up of Millennials, Gen Z and younger generations, according to 2019 Census Bureau data. Of the total votes cast in the election, 17% came from young people, according to CIRCLE.
According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation. From a survey conducted in 2018, Millennials and Gen Z were found to be more progressive and pro-government than their older counterparts.
While Millennials and Gen Z have distinct differences, their politics seem to align in the 2020 election; 63% of young voters cited the coronavirus as a top issue on the ballot, with 29% citing racism and 15% citing climate change as other important issues.
“The next four years, I hope that Biden brings America back together and erases […] the division Trump caused,” Sifferman said.
Social media engaged young people more than any campaign or government effort
After the 2016 election, coverage of political social media has revolved around negative aspects including fake news, Russian bots, and the president’s tweets. This year, social media played an important part in engaging and mobilizing young voters due to the coronavirus and virtual campaigning.
According to a study conducted by CIRCLE, social media was a bigger source of election information for young people in 2020 than it was in 2018. Approximately 64% of young people ages 18 to 29 say they are more informed about politics because of social media.
Settle for Biden is an online grassroots group of former Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders supporters whose mission was to persuade other progressives and leftists to vote for Biden opposed to voting Green or not at all. With over 288,000 followers on Instagram, Settle for Biden used their platform to inform voters about registration, provided voter guides, and shared election results.
The account was created on April 10, after Sanders had stopped campaigning for the presidency. The account began as comedic relief, posting about the slight improvements of competency Biden had. Following the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, the account buckled down on more informative posts to persuade followers to settle and vote for Biden.
Reporter’s Notebook: Interview with Kate Perschke about reporting this story
While the account fostered debate among the left about Biden’s capability, Settle for Biden attracted a large following of users who sought to perform online activism. Memes like voting orange out of the popular game Among Us and performative posts in support of marginalized groups garnered more likes and attention than posts about voter registration and phone banking opportunities.
Post-election, the Settle for Biden accounts have transitioned to a mission to hold the administration accountable, including reporting on cabinet picks and pushing for more progressive solutions.
Another social media site that cultivated election discourse was TikTok. The short-format video app has been the foundation for the rise of influencer groups who create mega-accounts, or “TikTok houses” that create niche content for their audiences.
Emerging in October, TikTok for Biden, now known as Gen Z for Change, is reminiscent of a TikTok house, host to over 400 creators with a collective 200 million following. The coalition posts about registering to vote, Biden’s policies, and promoted events such as phone banking and registering to vote efforts.With the election results certified, TikTok for Biden has transitioned to Gen Z For Change, which will continue to produce videos that raise awareness and push for change. However, similar to Settle for Biden, TikTok for Biden seemed to get less views and likes with opportunities for action and more engagement when popular creators published more light-hearted content.
Despite the lack of a relationship between online activism and IRL action, accounts like Settle for Biden and Gen Z For Change have informed younger voters about the current politics of the United States. Whether the coronavirus pandemic, lack of campaign outreach, or overall unenthusiasm for the candidates on the ballot deterred more young people from civic engagement, young people showed up in historic numbers.
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