Yana Batra is finally old enough to vote—but barely. She’ll turn 18 a few weeks before the November midterm elections, just in time to cast an early ballot at Georgia Tech, where she’s studying mechanical engineering. It’s her first time voting, but Batra’s an old hand when it comes to politics: In 2018—as a seventh grader in Decatur—she helped organize a middle school walkout demanding gun law reform following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“The thing that compelled me to be civically engaged is this realization that, if I want the world to be a better and safer place, I am the person best equipped to make that happen,” said Batra. “That it was my responsibility as an American citizen to make my voice heard.”
There are, at last count, more than 7 million registered voters in Georgia; roughly an eighth of them—more than 800,000—are between the ages of 18 and 24. The state’s youngest voting cohort, all members of Generation Z, is distinct from the rest of the electorate by several measures. They are more racially diverse than older voters, part of a wider shift in the nation’s demographics. They are so-called “digital natives,” fluent in the technologies that increasingly drive our culture, news, and politics. And, perhaps most distinctly, they have come of age politically in a world riven by global instability and growing distrust in the electoral system itself. Many of them first cast a vote in 2020, a legitimate election that about a fifth of Americans are convinced was illegitimate, according to a poll from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Thousands more will cast their first ballot in November, joining the democratic process at a time when its future has never felt more uncertain.
If that’s a dispiriting invitation to join the body politic, young voters seem undeterred. In 2020, Georgia led youth turnout nationwide: 18- to 24-year-olds made up 20 percent of the state’s voters, nearly as many as were eligible to vote. And polling suggests that, in November, voters under the age of 30 are poised to set new records for midterm turnout.
Like Batra, Hannah Testa’s political activism started early. Testa, a Cumming native and a 19-year-old sophomore at Vanderbilt University, has been an environmental activist since elementary school. After meeting with her state senator to discuss ideas to limit Georgia’s use of plastic bags, she helped launch a statewide “Plastic Pollution Awareness Day” and later advocated for legislation targeting plastic pollution. She first voted in the 2020 presidential election.
Though research has found most teens are influenced by their parents’ political beliefs while living at home, Testa formed her own opinions early. “My dad was more Republican-leaning,” she said. “I started doing a lot of my own research and seeing what I was.”
Alex Blecker, 21, also cultivated his political views early in adolescence. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve formed my own beliefs and not necessarily followed what my mom and dad think,” he said. Blecker, a senior at Oglethorpe University, identifies as a moderate; he isn’t registered with either party, and he’s voted for candidates on both sides. But he’s written opinion articles for conservative outlets—several were about left-wing movements on college campuses criticizing Israel, which he sees as evidence of anti-Semitism. He said he often finds himself to the right of his fellow college students: “It’s kind of funny when you see yourself as middle of the road—but not middle of the road relative to the other people that I’m around.”
In most states, young voters do trend left. In 2020, Georgia voters ages 18 to 29 favored Biden by 19 percent. But results look different when broken down by race: 90 percent of young Black voters chose Biden, while 62 percent of young white voters opted for Trump.
Sofia Damer-Salas, 20, an Emory University junior, said she was surprised to find so much political diversity on campus, especially after growing up in a fairly ideologically homogeneous community in Chicago. She identifies as liberal but appreciates the lively political atmosphere: “You can’t really confirm your own opinions without hearing others’,” she said. “I think it was really good that I came to a school with a lot of people who think differently.”
Damer-Salas is a campus fellow for the Campus Vote Project, a nonpartisan organization focused on youth vote turnout, which works with students at campuses nationwide. As a fellow, Damer-Salas helps students register to vote, shares election info, and organizes get-out-the-vote events—always with refreshments, of course: “That’s the biggest motivator to come to stuff here!” Students can register to vote with their on-campus address so it’s easier to cast a ballot come Election Day, but navigating the bureaucracy can be daunting, making roles like Damer-Salas’s important for encouraging youth turnout. Social media outreach is key for connecting students with registration and election information: 50 percent of Gen Z Americans get their news primarily from sources like TikTok and Instagram, and the political ecosystem has adjusted accordingly. Youth-focused voting rights groups like Rock the Vote harness popular memes to share election information, while savvy politicians have built huge youth followings through engaging content. (Senator Jon Ossoff, with over 510,000 TikTok followers, frequently goes viral.) “It involves people who otherwise would not get involved,” noted Damer-Salas.
On the other hand, social media has exacerbated many of the ills plaguing the body politic, from entrenched polarization to the spread of misinformation. For some young people, the precarity of the present moment has led to a sense of nihilism. “A lot of my peers have developed this We’re just on a floating rock mentality,” Damer-Salas said. “Like, Well, climate change is gonna kill us all.”
But given the record youth turnout in recent elections, it’s clear that young Americans still overwhelmingly believe that voting holds the key to the future they want to live in. “We are coming of age as voters in a time where democracy feels undervalued and imperiled,” said Batra, the Georgia Tech first-year. “But I think that makes the concept more important to young people, not less. And I think that’s what young people are really prepared to do: embrace democracy.”
This article appears in our November 2022 issue.