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Why Gen Z Activism isn’t Reflected in Voter Turnout

Annabel Roubinowitz, tbh Producer
Annabel Roubinowitz
Annabel Roubinowitz, tbh Producer
"Where did all the passion go? The intense debates about forging political change? The rage that led teenagers to protest across city streets in masses, demanding reproductive rights and school safety policies?"
Annabel Roubinowitz

Convent Stuart Hall High School Senior Annabel Roubinowitz is thinking a lot about why Gen Z is known for being such a politically active generation, but their turnout in the polls is lower than other generations. She explores why in this episode of tbh.

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Story Transcript

As a high school activist, I spend my time advocating for issues.like gun violence, reproductive rights and sex education in schools. I seek to make political change on a national and local scale. Of course, I’m not alone in this.

When I scroll through my Instagram, half my friends are hopping on the activist bandwagon by posting infographics on the hottest new political issues like climate change.

Then they post selfies in my hometown of San Francisco protesting against the Supreme Court’s decision to limit reproductive rights. Their posts show them carrying rhinestone-studded posters with slogans .

Clip Roe v Wade Protests: “My body, my choice! My body, my choice!”

But whether I’m at a protest or in the classroom, I like to raise the easiest and most effective way to forge political change: Voting.

Where did all the passion go? The intense debates about forging political change? The rage that led teenagers to protest across city streets in masses, demanding reproductive rights and school safety policies?

I know what you may be thinking – that Gen-Z, is actually turning out at record high rates in recent elections.

For example, in California, the Census Bureau reports that just under 50% of Gen-Z voted in the presidential election in 2020. But still … we’re voting at lower rates than older populations.

Millennials, Gen-X, and seniors still turn out at higher rates.

By the way, Gen-Z refers to anyone born between 1997 and 2012.

On a national scale in 2022, this most recent midterm election, young people’s turnout rate was still terrible, in my opinion.

RUBY BELLE BOOTH: My name is Ruby Bell Booth. I work at Circle. It's based at the Jonathan M Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, and I'm the elections coordinator there, which means I do a lot of our research around elections.

CIRCLE is one of the leading national organizations researching youth voters. It’s an acronym for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

RUBY BELLE BOOTH: So 23% being a good turnout is definitely troublesome because over 75% of young people didn't vote.

But the reality is, is that we are working from a place whereas as few as 13, 12 or 13% turned out in 2014.

Here’s a short clip from NBC with some Gen Z on why they didn’t show up for the midterm election.

NBC Short On Voting Clip

“When I don’t know who to pick, who’s the right person, I think it’s better to pick no-one rather than the wrong person.”

We’ll hear more about this later. But first, I want to explain why I’m concerned about low turnout numbers. The right to vote was hard-fought for – especially for those of us who have been historically marginalized.

In the 1920’s, young women across the United States protested in unison to pass the 19th amendment and gain the right to vote.

Sounds of singing at a 1965 civil rights rally Clip  

And in the 1960s, African Americans marched across Washington to win passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

So why aren’t teens excited about participating in the ultimate form of activism – when we have so much at stake?

Are we just politically disengaged? Overwhelmed by the voting process? Lazy?

The answer’s not that simple.

My nineteen year old sister Aurelie’s first voting experience at her college, the University of Chicago gives us a sense of why.

When I asked her why she voted, she said she did it almost by accident – after a friend of hers persuaded her to do it.


I was like: “Sure, I'll register to vote.” So. I did, and then the man who registered me handed me a ballot and was like, okay, you go vote over there. And I said, what? I thought this was registering. And then he was like, if you're registering now, when do you expect to vote? Are you, like, it's gonna happen in the next, like, week or so, like, you might as well just do it now.

So I was like, okay. And then I went and voted.

Aurelie cares about issues like drug addiction and homelessness, which she believes are related. She’s engaged civically by providing relief to people who are addicted to drugs. But voting is not her top priority.


So my friend was like, we need to vote. You need to vote and be a responsible citizen. You should come with me and register to vote. All you need to do is register. It'll take five minutes.

You see, Illinois is one of the states that try to make voting as convenient as possible. It’s like other states that have a higher turnout, like California.

Here in California, resident citizens with a driver's license are automatically registered to vote.

Poll day, election noise Clip

My friend Kole Alfonso can confirm how easy it is. He’s a student at UCLA, who voted in the 2020 elections on campus.

KOLE ALFONSO: So, I mailed in one ballot, I think even for the referendum for 2022, and then the other one I went, UCLA has a couple voting centers on campus.

Pennsylvania is another state that experienced higher-than-average youth voter turnout rates. More than 31 percent voted in 2022, CIRCLE’s research shows.

The state’s voter registration makes voting easy and accessible for university students. My friend Vishal Krishnaiah, a student at University of Pennsylvania, shared his experience.

VISHAL KRISHNAIAH: I just showed up. I, you know, show my ID, walk to booth. You know, the whole thing took maybe five minutes. Less than five minutes.

Basic administrative details can have a huge impact, says CIRCLE’s Ruby Belle Booth.

RUBY BELLE BOOTH: Our research has found that policies like automatic voter registration, same day registration, online voter registration, pre-registration, and vote by mail are all facilitative for helping young people to turn out to vote.

So logistics are one of the big barriers for young voters.

RUBY BELLE BOOTH: So those are things like young people not having enough time to vote, not knowing when the deadline to register was. Having trouble filling out their registration forms, not having transportation to the polls.

The other huge barrier is a lack of confidence. Many of us feel overwhelmed, according to CIRCLE’s Belle Booth.


The other set of barriers I like to think about are really sort of cognitive, almost psychological or related to information. And so our research finds that over half of young people, ages 18 to 29, don't feel like they're qualified to participate in politics.

And that reflects a lack of self-confidence, self-efficacy, trust in the system, all of these sort of factors that can impact young people's desire to vote and whether they feel like they have a voice.

Other members of my generation don’t vote because they don’t feel like the parties are addressing their concerns.


Well, for me personally, sometimes I'll, I feel like reluctant to participate if I feel like the options aren't good enough or, they're not as qualified, so I'd rather So I'd rather, not participate than to participate.

That’s Melissa Reed. She’s an 18-year-old college student going into her second year at UCLA, with a major in political science.

Like so much of Gen-Z, she says she’s an independent.


I don't fully identify with either party. And so I'm really big on the... Ideologies of the candidates, and I feel like if, if they're not, like fitting to my personal ideologies, then I'm more hesitant to participate.

Reed’s sentiments match what pollsters have identified as a key attribute to Gen Z voters: They’re motivated by the issues, not by party or candidate, according to the Washington Post.


I would say, as a young adult, definitely the age. I feel like my, the people in my age group are less represented when it comes to, like,, politics and, you know, even, even like, wealth and equality and equity, all those things that it can really be summed up to representation.

Clip 2020 election day, poll day, noise

While talking with my friends, I also discovered that most of them can’t see how their vote in local elections connects to national issues that they care about – such as abortion and climate change.

Clip 2020 election day, poll day, noise

So, they’ll vote in the polarized presidential elections yet when it comes to their local elections, they won’t participate.

Clip 2020 election day, poll day, noise

Some young voters can’t see how the laws on the ballot will impact their day-to day life.


I feel like when you're younger, issues generally are more, you think of them in a more abstract way, rather than as something that can directly affect you.

That’s Vishal Krishnaiah again. So we’ve already discovered that one way to incentivize Gen-Z is by making it convenient.

But how do we reach someone in their late 20’s who’s never voted before? Or a teen straight out of high school who’s skipping college?

Or even a college student who has all the accessibility and practical means to vote, yet simply doesn’t see the point in casting a ballot?

School Sounds Clip 

CIRCLE’s answer is to make the process of voting an integral part of the educational curriculum for students.

Ruby Belle Booth: 

One piece of the puzzle would be K-12 education, and having civic education. In high schools, civics and government classes in high schools where you're teaching young people about voting and elections and how to register to vote.

There are many kinds of organizations that try to remove those logistical and psychological barriers facing us. The progressive national lobbying collective Gen-Z for Change is one of them.

One of its projects called the Voter Hub provides one central resource where its audience can register to vote, find polling places, figure out what ID – if any– they need to vote, who their political representatives are, what’s on their ballot, and more.

The group also aims to educate and influence young people where they are – on social media, and they started with tiktok. Gen Z for Change has over nearly 2 million followers on TikTok.

It claims to have more than half a billion followers across the different social networks. Its members have been widely quoted across major media outlets.

One of the Voter Hub’s goals is to boost Gen Z’ers local voting engagement by filling the informational void left by the extinction of local news organizations.

For their part, most of my friends say they collect their daily news from scrolling through Instagram or Tiktok.

And even if my peers do read local news, CIRCLE’s research shows that we don’t feel it represents us.

Here are some of Gen Z for Change’s activists on TikTok urging Ohioans to vote against an initiative to increase the percentage of voters needed to enact state ballot measures–from 50 to 60 percent.

The vote on the initiative took place in early August, 2022. If enacted, it was anticipated to block an amendment to Ohio’s constitution that would have codified the right to an abortion, among other things.

Gen Z TikTok Clip: You’re about to have one of the most important elections and you probably haven't heard about it. Y'all know what to do hit all those buttons that story. 700,000 signatures have been collected … Issue One needs to Fail! So please … go out and vote “no” on issue one! Send this to somebody in Ohio! Phone bank! Just get people talking about this!

Zoe Shipley is a 21-year old activist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s also a research coordinator for this group of activists and influencers.


Gen Z for Change Is really focusing on down ballot voting. Because, like, local, city, even state level elections can make the difference for your life, for your everyday life, for transportation, for the air in your community, for your school system, for the abortion laws in your state, for anything and everything where you live.

California members plan to post about labor rights and climate issues in 2024, Shipley says.

If our generation doesn’t vote, we are letting older generations determine the fate of our society.

SNL Biden Clip: I understand war and Putin, but there’s one thing I don’t understand: Computer.

Like creating laws that conflict with Gen-Z’s values, like raising the costs of housing.

The good news is that many of the issues that my peers and I care about, such as gun control and abortion access, are motivating my Gen Z peers to vote at higher rates than previous generations.

But we could achieve so much more if more of us actually vote instead of just vaguely intending to, or doing performative activism.

Gen-Z is an engaged generation of activists, and we want to create legislative change. We’ve already elected one Gen Z to Congress. That’s Rep.Maxwell Frost, a Democrat from Florida.

Frost is a prominent voice in the national anti-gun violence movement.

And in California, we’ve elected Gen Zer and Democrat Alex Lee to the state legislature. Lee represents Alameda and Santa Clara counties. Housing issues as well as the environment are big issues for him, like they are for many other Gen-Z.

But we need to arm ourselves with voting information. If we can plan for college and vacations, then we can plan to vote. This might even mean voting for candidates who aren’t ideal, says Gen Z for Change’s Shipley. ZOE SHIPLEY: We try to motivate people to say “Elect your not favorite person now, to be able to elect your favorite person in the future. Make that step towards the change so that ultimately we can garner the future that we want, even if that doesn't exist currently.

We must continue this upward trend and translate the burning passion Gen-Z has for activist issues into a desire and plan to vote.

Hopefully, through creating civic engagement opportunities for young people like facilitating registration stands in high schools or supporting them to join their local youth advisory councils , we can turn Gen-Z into a generation of future voters and real change makers, both in local and national elections.

Since I’m turning eighteen in October of 2024, I’m looking forward to voting in the presidential election.

I’m going to do my part by researching both candidates and their policies on issues I care about, like climate change and housing costs.

I’m also going to go in a group, so I can get my friends to vote.

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