The Power of the Youth Vote

Light blue background with image of blue wave, an American flag and the word "VOTE" laid over a ballot box and someone inserting their ballot into the box, a black and white image of Michelle Obama wearing a shirt that reads "WHEN WE ALL VOTE," a black and white image of a sign that reads "STOP THE BAN VOTE NO ON THE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT AUGUST 2," and a black and white images of people with a camera, painting and spray painting.

No other story dominated headlines these past midterm elections more than the power of the youth vote. Young voters made a decisive impact in states like Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, with this year’s midterms resulting in the second-highest youth voter turnout in midterms in the last 30 years. While we faced, and still continue to face, unprecedented threats to our democracy, young voters not only stood up for themselves — they also protected democracy.  

Since 2018, we’ve seen increased engagement and agency from young voters in local and national elections. Earlier this year, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal protections for abortion rights in the Dobbs decision, young voters led the outrage and consequent response at the ballot box. In August, Kansas voters rejected a ballot measure that would have removed protections for abortion rights from the state’s constitution. Voters under the age of 30 comprised over 14% of ballots cast, exceeding the youth vote share for each of the past three general elections in the state. The turnout in Kansas sent a clear message that young people weren’t just paying attention; they were organizing and making their voices heard. 

At When We All Vote, we see that young people are ready to play an active role in the present and future course of our nation. Since 2018, we have been on a mission to change the culture around political participation by working to close the voting race and age gap. When We All Vote has specifically focused on organizing young voters, particularly young voters of color. We know the youth vote lives online and in pop culture so we’ve worked with diverse influencers, artists, sports leagues, fashion designers, media and corporate partners to infuse voting into cultural moments. We meet young voters where they are. This year, our volunteers and partners hosted over 200 events around the country with over 90,000 people using our platform to register to vote or check their voter registration status.  

Young voters, particularly Gen Z, made history in 2022. Voters in Florida elected 25-year-old Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), the first Gen Z member of Congress. Frost is already becoming a fierce voice on the Hill, sharing his struggles to secure an apartment in Washington, D.C. due to his low credit score. These real-life experiences and perspectives are needed from our elected officials. Thanks to young voters, federal and state and local officials are increasingly becoming more reflective of our diverse nation. 

Communicating with young voters in a decentralized information environment poses challenges, but also creates new opportunities. 

Traditional communications strategies have long centered on TV, radio and print outlets. But that is not where young voters are tuning in. In 2022, nearly a quarter of Americans under 30 reported that they regularly get news from TikTok. Only 8% of Gen Z consumes traditional news. Social platforms like TikTok, Instagram and others each have a unique set of influencers and micro-communities. Conventional press releases or traditional cable news hits tend to serve older audiences and often miss young voters. In order to reach young voters, messages need to be digital first and tailored to the platforms where they spend their time. 

In the lead up to this year’s midterms, Vote Lab, our innovative research program, conducted a field experiment for Instagram influencers to study their input on voter engagement. Our work adds to the growing interest around using social media personalities to reach prospective voters. 100% of our new voter registrations from the experiment were accounted for by young voters and voters of color. Additionally, our evidence suggests that influencers with fewer than 30,000 followers generate more engagement-per-follower than influencers with larger followings. Finally, we found qualitative evidence supporting the idea that content which includes personal stories or relates the importance of voting to the interests of specific communities are highly effective at generating engagement.

The reach and influence young voices have — fueled by social media — is unprecedented and presents endless opportunities for our strategies to evolve.

These initial findings fuel our desire to navigate today’s decentralized communications environment, particularly on platforms like Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube and beyond. As we prepare for 2024, campaigns that want to reach young voters should focus on deepening relationships with micro-influencers and co-creating messaging relevant to their audiences. As we enter the new year, When We All Vote is focused on translating our influencers’ virtual influence into real-world action. 

Our volunteers move voters from their screens to the streets. 

Our public education efforts are most meaningful when they translate into action from target voters joining our nationwide network of volunteers and supporters. 

In the run up to the election, we hosted the first-ever Culture of Democracy Summit in Los Angeles, California in June 2022. The convening brought together a cross-section of Gen Z activists and industry leaders in sports, entertainment and civic engagement to discuss the threats to our democracy and our collective and individual roles in protecting and expanding it. Some of the country’s leading young voices like March for Our Lives’ David Hogg, Gen Z Girl Gang founder Deja Foxx and Freedom March NYC’s co-founder Chelsea Miller were among the participants who covered issues from gun violence to climate change to young people’s increased involvement in local and national politics. When We All Vote’s co-chairs Bretman Rock and Liza Koshy joined a growing chorus of young people calling on their peers to take matters into their own hands. 

In the fall of 2022, When We All Vote’s Party at the Polls program — where our partners and volunteers hosted celebratory events at polling places — also had a youth focus. Our partners in Philadelphia brought together hundreds of high school students and first-time voters for a voting circus with aerial performances, food and music. In Kayenta, Arizona, Native leaders hosted a 20-mile trail ride to the polls to mobilize young Navajo voters. And in Atlanta, at the Votelanta Music Festival, young voters from local HBCU campuses showed off their “I Voted” stickers at a concert headlined by Gucci Mane.  

Finally, some of our most effective work takes place on high school and college campuses. Our My School Votes program is active in 200 high schools nationwide. These civics-centered clubs train students on how to build campaigns and register voters in their schools and communities. Our Vote Loud HBCU campaign provides grants to historically Black colleges and universities to engage in nonpartisan voter registration on campus. Our ongoing presence in high schools and universities ensures that our community of student volunteers is dependable and engaged in civic action year-round, not just during election season. 

The work to turn out even more young voters in 2024 starts now. 

While some may argue that 27% youth voter turnout in this year’s midterms still lags behind the 47% turnout rate of all voters this year, historically, youth turnout during midterm elections has hovered around 20%. We are making progress, but there is work left to do. 

Young voters are as informed and as engaged as ever, demonstrating record turnout in the last two midterm election cycles. Yet, the reach and influence young voices have — fueled by social media — is unprecedented and presents endless opportunities for our strategies to evolve. With each cycle, we confirm that digital outlets are the primary means of information for young voters, so our strategies and messaging must be multifaceted and across multiple platforms. As trends change rapidly we must be flexible and prepared in order to reach this rapidly growing electorate. 

The future of our democracy is in their hands. It’s up to us to make sure that young voters understand the threats, recognize their role and have all the tools at their disposal to take action. The good news? They already have. 

Stephanie Young is the executive director of When We All Vote, a nonpartisan voting initiative created by Michelle Obama.

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?