“Why don’t you just vote? Why don’t you use your vote?” the club president in her pink North Face jacket asks. “I honestly want to just, like, interview someone, not even be mean about it, just ask them why.” Why, indeed? It’s the question on everyone’s mind seated around the long meeting table at Central Connecticut State University’s Political Science Club meeting. As the seven members scour through mini hot dogs and mozzarella sticks, they can’t help but share their anxieties about the upcoming Democratic primary election. The two candidates left in the race, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, don’t seem to stir feelings of intense passion from the voters in the room.
One thing club members are passionate about is getting Trump out of office. The group of three women and four men ranges from fresh-faced freshmen to seniors so “super,” they haven’t been back to college in years. They are all here to discuss the results of Super Tuesday, which saw Biden make a sizable jump to Democratic front-runner with a primary sweep and winning ten states. They dress as usual: a white button-up with sleeves rolled up, leggings, a pair of ankle boots. One older student, tucked away on the far side of the table, wears a backpack, a big, puffy jacket, and an “Obama 2008” hat. They are not here to give dissertations, but rather to talk through their own thoughts and feelings. In fact, it takes them twenty-five minutes to even begin talking about the Super Tuesday results. Much more worrisome, in the short-term, is the recent spread of COVID-19, the spending habits of CCSU, and the state of their own academic standing. Frequently, a sardonic joke is followed by the speaker turning to me to ask, “You’re not going to write that I said that, right?” or, “You won’t, like, put my name in this, right?” I tell them I won’t. I want what they want: to learn what keeps student voter turnout so low. Also, I want to hear their feelings about this election cycle. Unsurprisingly, anxieties lie around every corner.
When the discussion actually begins on the results of Super Tuesday, the topic of conversation quickly becomes much more broad. What do these candidates care about? What are their policies and ideas going to do to me? To us? Some worry Biden isn’t strong enough ideologically; some worry that Sanders’ ideas are dangerous.
“He’s not a real Democrat!” Obama Hat yells from the end of the table. Yet, there is one point they keep circling back to. One younger club member, a Bernie supporter in a large, black hoodie, pauses the heated discussion to say, “Regardless of who wins, I think we can all agree in this room, that when we see the name with a ‘D’ next to it on the ballot in November, we know what we’re gonna do.” Everyone agrees.
The overall theme with these students is, “Get Trump out of office. Everything’s worse with him there, so get him out.” Politifact notes that voter turnout among people ages 18-29 has always been the lowest of all age groups. Democrats, Sanders in particular, were hoping to mold this discontent with the current administration into a new revolution of increased youth voter turnout. Why, then, are the youth still voting in record low numbers in this primary? John Holbein, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and author of the book Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Action, said to Politifact, “Young people fail to vote because of structural issues with how elections are run and how poorly civics education is taught in America”.
Many high school and college-age students, like my new political science friends, have been more engaged with political discussion in recent years. According to USA Today, the issues important to them include student debt, gun control, and climate change.
At the college level in particular, this kind of discussion is commonplace. What differs is the level of civic engagement that stems from the discussion. Young people do not share one mind or one background. The AARP, in a 2011 study titled Understanding a Diverse Generation: Youth Civic Engagement in the United States, states that younger people are a very heterogeneous voting group, and their assessment since then has not changed. Millennials and Generation Z are the most diverse generations in American history. The AARP also has names for the levels at which different youths are engaged. They measure engagement in the political system itself as well as civic actions taken by people in pursuit of political or nonpolitical goals. Some of these labels are:
- Political Specialists: Those who are highly engaged politically, but not civically.
- Broadly Engaged: Those likely to engage in civic behaviors.
- Talkers: Stay current with political discussion and that’s it. May or may not vote.
- Under-Mobilized: Not civically engaged or registered to vote.
- Politically Marginalized: Active in political discussions/groups, but not registered to vote.
What exactly disengages a young person so completely from a political system that, to a large extent, controls their fate? On one hand, privilege. We all know at least one cisgender, heterosexual white person who doesn’t feel they have anything to fear personally from the system regardless of what it ends up giving them. However, the AARP also notes that with the stark differences in occupation, parenting, healthcare, and education available to young people of different socioeconomic classes, it’s unsurprising that many people don’t feel a connection with politics.
These people haven’t been allowed to. The AARP notes that not all school districts have a wide variety of political courses available to pique student interest. This is particularly the case in lower-income areas, where many students may not have the free time or key information needed to participate in politically themed events or discussions. These are the “Under-Mobilized” and “Politically Marginalized.” The question for these people, perhaps, is not “Why don’t you just vote?” but rather, “What is keeping you from voting?” The answer for many could be, “I just don’t care.” Many others could say, “I don’t know enough about it,” or even “It’s too hard for me.” This represents not a problem of voter disinterest, but a lack of education and encouragement more akin to voter suppression.
“We need new representation and more representation. Traditional demographics like old white men aren’t the future for this.
The members splitting Sodexo brownies are largely “Political Specialists” and “Talkers.” They have discussions like the one about Super Tuesday, often regarding their own opinions, and, come election time, they always vote according to those opinions they discuss. They are engaged more politically than they are in civil activities. A few, however, describe rallies they have gone to and demonstrations they have been a part of. This minority is known as “Broadly Engaged.”
The power of the youth vote is often discussed in online articles and in political circles. The ultimate aim of all this talk is for the youth voter to realize their power and perhaps put someone in charge who shares their national priorities. The goal of the youth voter revolution is, ideally, to raise young people’s consciousness to the issues and provide a political basis side-by-side with action so as to correct those issues. While it seems to be less than successful so far, there are those trying to make it happen—namely, the Sunrise Movement.
Sunrise is one of the largest youth-led political movements in the country. It is a coalition of young people from every state united by one common goal: stopping climate change. Naturally, this pits the organization against President Trump, who pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement and appointed the director of a multinational oil company to serve as his Energy Secretary.
Sena Wazer, a dedicated 16-year-old leader of Sunrise’s branch in Connecticut, says it’s not just about what Trump has done, it’s about the state of the country right now. She is displeased with the general inaction against climate change. Some of Wazer’s speeches are on Youtube, including one she gave for Bloomfield Public Schools. Watching her speak, I was struck by her refusal to choose between the maturity of her position and her place as a kid; rather, her identity molds the two. She can be serious and inspiring without giving up her unique perspective as a very young person. Her words are upright and succinct, but her hands are distinctly conversational. She blends the force of her words with the genuineness you would expect from someone her age. She dresses professionally but does not wear formal suits or business attire. Rather, she wears a bright red collared shirt with a white fir leaf pattern. Wazer is one who embraces the title of “Young Person” without allowing it to limit her. Governmental inaction on climate change is something she has had her eye on since she was a child fighting for the whales.
“We have to do something,” Wazer tells me over the phone. “Business as usual, that’s not working. This is a huge problem, and one that’s going to affect the young people who will inherit it more than the older people who have created it. Little steps won’t work. We need massive movement.” I joke with her that this issue could very well be the one that kills us all. She replies with gusto, “Yeah, I mean, you’re right.” But she doesn’t find it funny. The future is scary, and that’s why massive movement is needed.
Sunrise wholeheartedly endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, but with him out, they move their support to Biden, seeing him as less of an environmental problem than Trump. They work with politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to get fossil fuel money out of politics and support the Green New Deal. They do this through a massive coalition of young people ages thirty-five and under. “Generally,” Wazer says, “twenty is about the average age.” Their aim is to increase broadly engaged youth. “We need new faces fighting for new things. We have to help people get involved, but we make it simple and clear for everyone. That’s what’s most effective. We tell them, ‘This is what we need you to do and here’s how you can do it.’” Sunrise organizes youth rallies and demonstrations, canvassing, and, most importantly, they try to get the word spread from individual to individual. This part is of great concern to Wazer. “Yes, it’s a lot of going out there, a lot of door knocking, but most importantly, we need people reaching out. We need new representation and more representation. Traditional demographics like old white men aren’t the future for this.”
Wazer also notes the importance of registering to vote and using the power of your vote to support candidates who will fight against climate change and support the Green New Deal (There’s a nifty scorecard on the Sunrise Movement website with how many points the candidates get for their plans regarding climate change). Sunrise has, in several states, held registration events meant to make it easy for young people to register to vote. Wazer has been one of those spearheading these efforts in Connecticut, despite not even being old enough to vote herself.
Sunrise is, among other things, a group of dedicated voters, much like the Political Science Club. They have not been divested from the system through a lack of education. They are not politically marginalized, but even people who do make it to the polls can still be met with hurdles when trying to vote. Issues with voting technology, identification, registration, or a slew of other technical things could result in an individual having a harder time voting, or even being turned away at the polls. In Texas and California, polling locations at college campuses, in particular, were hit with shortages of polling staff and voting machines that caused wait times upwards of four hours. Many students online reported having to leave the polls without voting due to the wait time. One popular tweet depicts a Texas man who waited seven hours to vote. Some states, Texas included, make it very difficult to get an absentee ballot. However, Coronavirus has had a major impact on voting at large, with some states either changing the system to mail-in votes only or postponing their primary outright, proving that it is possible to make the voting system more inclusive. Florida and Arizona, after encouraging voters to take advantage of Early Voting and Voting-By-Mail for the sake of social distancing, each saw total turnout increases in the 100,000 range, according to Vox. What the virus tells us is that more convenient voting is possible. Now, young voters need to take advantage of it.
I asked Wazer what, if anything, she would want every young person reading to know. “Tell them to get educated. Take initiative to learn about these issues yourself. The information is out there, learn the science. It is your future at stake, and adults don’t get it, so empower yourself. Your vote matters.”
Steve Kalpin is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Headline image: Mark Mirko at Hartford Courant