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Friday June 2nd

'A vote for our democracy': Youth poised to make big impact in 2020 election

UNC sophomore Samantha Beecham puts on an "I Voted" sticker after voting at the Carrboro Town Hall on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.
Buy Photos UNC sophomore Samantha Beecham puts on an "I Voted" sticker after voting at the Carrboro Town Hall on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.

With less than a week until Election Day, more than 75 million Americans have cast their ballots through absentee and early voting. 3.8 million of those ballots come from North Carolina, a state in which young voters have turned out at a rate almost four times higher than at this point in 2016.  

In North Carolina, young voters between the ages of 18 and 29 are poised to make a historic impact in this election. Because young people historically turn out at comparatively lower rates than older age demographics, increased turnout has the potential to alter election outcomes. 

Early voting in North Carolina ends on Saturday, Oct. 31, and polls will reopen for Election Day, Nov. 3. For more information, visit the N.C. Board of Elections website

If you encounter a problem at the polls or with your ballot, let us know by texting "ASK DTH" to 73-224. 

An index from CIRCLE, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, ranked North Carolina as the second state in the nation where the youth vote can have a significant impact on the presidential election, and fourth for the U.S. Senate race.

CIRCLE considers a variety of factors to rank states, said Jennifer McAndrew, a communications director for the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts. Some factors include the size of a state’s youth population, the past voting rates of young people and the competitiveness of races. 

What this means for American democracy remains to be seen, but it is clear young voters in North Carolina will make their voices heard in 2020 with increased enthusiasm and civic awareness. 

‘No reason’ for people to not vote 

Anna Beavon Gravely, executive director at N.C. Free, a Raleigh-based, nonpartisan political research organization, said the full impact of youth voter participation will not be evident until future elections.  

“If they just come out and vote once, then that was just a high watermark,” she said. “That’s not really the engagement that is going to be the movement of demanding civil discourse, pushing for transparency in policy reform."

Even so, the high youth turnout could sway competitive elections in the state. In North Carolina, young people prefer Democrat candidate Joe Biden over incumbent President Donald Trump by a 34-point margin. 

Through youth polling, CIRCLE has noted some drop-off in youth support for Trump, with almost 20 percent of young GOP supporters from 2018 and 8 percent of Trump supporters from 2016 planning to vote for Biden. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic shaking the support of young Trump voters, McAndrew said the Trump campaign has done a comparatively worse job than Biden’s campaign in contacting young voters. 

North Carolina was the first in the United States to send out absentee ballots, which voters don’t need a reason to request. The state also allows for online registration, same-day registration at early voting sites and preregistration for citizens below the voting age.  

The expanded voting periods due to concerns of COVID-19 transmission are expected to contribute to increased youth turnout, Simon Rosenberg, founder of national think-tank New Democrat Network, said. He anticipates youth voter turnout to be on par with the high participation of 2008’s presidential election. 

Fifty-two percent of registered voters in North Carolina have voted thus far, with more Democrat-affiliated voters having cast their ballots than Republicans. The partisan gap is much wider among young voters than other age demographics. 

Because the president advocated against widespread absentee voting earlier in the election cycle, Rosenberg said Trump created a dialogue that made people more aware of the importance of voting. Alongside unprecedented absentee ballot requests and long early voting periods, this dialogue has pushed American voters to the polls in the weeks before Election Day like never before. 

“I don’t think we really adequately process how significant all of this massive voting really is,” Rosenberg said. “It hasn’t happened before. It’s not like any other election.”

Both Rosenberg and Beavon Gravely said the ability to vote from home, consider the options on the ballot and discuss them with peers — which youth frequently do through social media — will lead to greater engagement with local races. 

“It just seems like there’s no reason for you to not vote,” Beavon Gravely said. “Your social media feeds are really backing that up.” 

Because of this, some organizations also try to show voters why different elections matter.

Miller Coffey, who graduated from Wake Forest University in 2017, is the communications and engagement coordinator at the Piedmont Environmental Alliance. Coffey said in addition to the organization’s work to get out the vote, they are specifically focusing on helping voters understand the power of local officials in day-to-day life, particularly in regards to environmental quality.

“Regardless of how you feel about national politics, your vote means a lot when it comes to your local, county and city,” they said.

It’s a common cliché that young people don’t vote because they’re indifferent and disinterested in politics. McAndrew and Rosenberg disagree, saying young people vote in lower numbers due to frequent relocating and various structural barriers, such as poor civic education. 

“A myth about young people is that they’re apathetic, and that they don’t care about issues or care about government, or that’s why they don’t vote,” McAndrew said. 

A generation ‘awake’

From reports of apocalyptic wildfires on the West Coast and ongoing protests against systemic racism, to the pandemic that has gone unchecked since March, the youth of America have come face-to-face with the intersection of politics and daily life, and as a result are hyper-aware of what’s going on in their country. 

“This is a generation that’s woken up,” Rosenberg said. “It’s awake now.”

Three issues in 2020 have especially resonated among young people and heightened enthusiasm to participate in the election: the climate crisis, racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic. 

Young people are leading the charge to increase voting literacy, register their peers and volunteer for campaigns, McAndrew said. Compared to even 2018, young people are encouraging their peers to vote, attending marches and demonstrations and donating to candidates at higher rates. 

Recent social movements have heightened youth enthusiasm, with 83 percent of young people saying they feel they can change the country and 60 percent saying they feel part of a movement that will vote to express their views, according to a CIRCLE poll.

Dani Bahena Bustos, a student at Meredith College, has phone banked for the Biden campaign alongside her sisters. As a DACA recipient, Bahena Bustos cannot vote herself, but finds empowerment through generating dialogue with her college peers and calling voters in the Latinx communities across the Triangle. 

“That’s given me the ability to reach out to more people and give them a real life perspective to how this election is going to affect different people’s lives,” she said. 

The intersectional perspective with which young people view social issues like LGBTQ rights, immigration and environmental justice have caused them to feel their future is at stake in this election, Bahena Bustos said. 

Coffey said the nonprofit is focused on educating voters on the environmental platforms of local candidates, but the organization seeks to get out the vote in general. 

“What I think is happening is that a lot of young people are realizing the power they have to affect change,” they said. 

Coffey stressed the importance of local races and that when young people vote, elected officials are often more responsive to community needs. They said young people want to elect people who will listen to them and act on the issues they care about, like racial injustice and the climate crisis. Helping young voters understand their power is key to driving youth participation.

Early voting turnout in North Carolina is at 75.3 percent of the total voter turnout from 2016, and Rosenberg said he expects to see a minimum of 15 to 20 million more voters in this year’s election than four years ago. 

“It’s a big vote for America,” he said. “It’s a vote for our democracy.”

For more election coverage from The Daily Tar Heel, visit our Election Center. 


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