Republicans’ apathy towards young voters is underpinned by an inaccurate catch-all image of a young voter: a college Democrat who only cares about legalizing weed. However, the 2022 midterms proved that young voters come from diverse backgrounds and care about a myriad of issues. Yes, young voters do include college students, but they also include parents, people going into public service, frontline workers, first responders and so much more. Most importantly, young voters will fight for reproductive freedom, voting rights, commonsense gun laws and climate justice, to name a few. As young people, we care because we have to deal with the repercussions of the policies that are put in place now that it’s our future.
Historically, apathy towards young voters by politicians and political messaging has been present on both sides of the political aisle. Politicians have assumed that young people don’t vote and, as a result, have not led concerted efforts to reach us. Consequently, young people have felt ignored by politicians, leading to lower youth turnout and fueling a vicious cycle that allows older generations to dominate the political conversation. However, as youth voter turnout has risen in recent years, politicians have increasingly been keen to run on issues that young people care about. By democratizing the political conversation, social media has been instrumental in breaking the cycle of low young voter turnout, giving people of different backgrounds a place to voice the issues they care about and the mechanisms to promote posts that resonate with them.
This year, after the fall of Roe v. Wade, we at Gen-Z for Change created videos expressing our outrage against the decision, which not only drove millions of impressions but also fostered a sense of solidarity among people living across the country. People could share stories of what abortion access meant to them to an audience of equally angry people. Olivia Julianna, a member of Gen-Z for Change, channeled this outrage on Twitter, where she raised over $2 million in donations for abortion funds. We created a tool that automatically generated accurate reviews for Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs), clinics that pretend to assist in abortions but actually take advantage of vulnerable pregnant people. We used our collective platforms on social media to raise awareness about these deceiving clinics, including writing a press release with U.S Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). These actions resulted in Yelp adding a disclaimer to all CPCs, stating that they provide limited medical services and may not have licensed medical professionals. Abortion was just one of the many issues that prompted young people to voice their concerns. Climate, labor and so many other issues were given credence online — and politicians listened. We collaborated on digital content, held in-person meetings at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and spoke with candidates about the importance of their elections and the future of democracy.
Gen-Z for Change has evolved from a coalition of online creators into a nationally recognized nonprofit working on the issues that motivate young people to get to the polls. What makes us unique is the fact that we are youth-led activists. We know what we’re fighting for, and in the months leading up to the midterm elections, we mobilized young people all across the country both digitally and on the ground. We embarked on our Battle for the Blue tour, in which we traveled to Florida and Texas to meet with progressive Democratic candidates in an effort to inspire young people to get out and vote. We sat down with Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, Florida state House candidate Anna Eskamani, Texas attorney general candidate Rochelle Garza, Texas lieutenant governor candidate Mike Collier, Texas congressional candidates Michelle Vallejo and Greg Casar, Austin mayoral candidate Celia Israel and Austin city council candidate Zo Qadri. During this trip, we saw firsthand how passionate young voters are because their rights were on the ballot. Hundreds of students missed class to rally for Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and dozens of queer individuals showed up to support Celia Israel, who is openly gay and would be the first Latina mayor of any major U.S. city. In her race, Israel advanced to the runoff, which will be held on Dec. 13.
Another one of our get-out-the-vote (GOTV) initiatives was our 22 for ‘22 on 22 livestream — a 22-hour Twitch stream where we talked with politicians and played games. We showed how politicians can be accessible and willing to hear the concerns of young people.
From meeting with candidates to hosting events and creating content on social media to raising millions of dollars, our GOTV efforts generated tens of millions of impressions across social media. We even participated in a takeover of Teen Vogue’s Instagram story on Election Day. These efforts did not go unnoticed. In Pennsylvania, key races for governor and U.S. Senate were won by Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman, candidates we worked closely with who were willing to speak to young people. This was demonstrated through several joint livestreams and text banking sessions hosted across TikTok and Instagram with Josh Shapiro, Students for Shapiro and Gisele Fetterman, the wife of John Fetterman. In addition, we also published endorsements to show support for candidates who will work for the people. Not only does this show whom we support, but it may also have influenced decisions for those who were undecided.
There’s no doubt that Gen-Z’s vote was instrumental in progressive races and battleground states across the country. Social media and digital tools have greatly expanded access to the electoral process for young voters and this is just the beginning. Youth participation will continue to grow in elections, and adapting to the changing landscape of political messaging will prove to be a winning strategy. The midterms aren’t over yet, though. With the Senate runoff in Georgia just around the corner, we will continue to fight and use our voices to shape the future of our democracy.
Originally from Connecticut, Sam Shlafstein is the communications coordinator for Gen-Z for Change and has been with the organization since 2021. He is a student at Chapman University where he conducts research on formerly incarcerated individuals in post-secondary education.
Sam Schmir is a recent graduate from Southern New Hampshire University and currently serves as the director of marketing and communications at Gen-Z for Change. He has been with the organization since 2020 and works with other nonprofits/NGOs such as 18by Vote and Amnesty International to advocate for human rights, justice and change.
This piece is part of Democracy Docket’s How We Won series, which features op-eds from candidates and organizations that answer the question: How did you win in the 2022 midterm elections and what does this victory mean for democracy?