Radical right lawmakers are trying to make it harder for college students and young people to vote in states nationwide. They are suppressing the youth vote by enacting policies that bar students from being able to exercise their voting rights by using their student IDs, attempting to eradicate on-campus polling locations, and threatening to raise the voting age. Why? They recognize that young voters have helped decide the last several election cycles up and down the ballot and are doing everything possible to stop it.
As the CEO of Rise, and one of the youngest leaders in the democracy space at 25 years old, I am personally invested in the fight to ensure the voting rights of every college student and young person in America. Young people have always led change in this nation and today we hold the keys to its future. Since 2018, young voters have saved our democracy in places when and where it mattered the most: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Without young voters showing up in record numbers, the attacks on our democracy over the last several years would be far more severe.
Despite our key role, in 2022, only about half of young voters were contacted by a campaign or organization in the lead-up to the midterm elections, according to CIRCLE at Tufts University. This lack of outreach reflects outdated stereotypes that young people will not turn out. Campaigns and groups instead spend on outreach to older voters who they see as being more reliable. But why would young people show up if we don’t even bother talking to them? If we are expected to play a role in protecting democracy, pundits, consultants, and candidates cannot continue to ignore us.
That is why Rise is beginning our work in 2024 now and helping get out the vote in some key 2023 elections like Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court race. Our college students and youth organizers are registering voters, engaging them around our issues, and training thousands of young people to lead efforts on the ground to combat the attacks on the youth vote. Building a strong foundation now is an essential part of achieving our North Star goal of breaking the youth voter turnout record in 2024. Rise is building a movement with our partners to achieve 60% youth voting in 2024, a feat that would nearly erase the turnout gap between younger and older voters.
While we work to hit this milestone, we know that far right groups and lawmakers will do everything that they can to stand in our way. By undermining faith in elections and advancing measures that make it harder to vote because of bogus voter fraud claims, these forces do not want to see more youth participate. We have to fight to protect democracy while we also do the essential on the ground organizing work to win. What does that look like?
We know that youth voter suppression is a policy problem that we can only address by building political power and exercising it at the ballot box, in the streets, in state legislatures, and, crucially, in the courts. For that to be possible, we must continue rallying record numbers of youth to elect leaders that will be on the side of justice. This means we must begin to organize now — not a few months before the election. Charlotte Hill of the Democracy Policy Initiative at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy argues that organizations like Rise must continue to hold states and elected officials accountable for their suppression efforts. However, we cannot do this alone. We need strong partners in established institutions and funders to stand with us and help make this work possible.
If we want democracy to prevail, key players like major democracy funders and the Democratic Party cannot afford to take the youth for granted either. Developing the next generation of young leaders and organizers is year-round work that requires year-round investment, too. It’s time to invest in young people 365 days of the year and make genuine efforts to reach those who are discouraged and disengaged.
These three actions can be taken by the Democratic Party along with other major democracy funders to support young voters now through Election Day:
- Providing more young people with the opportunity to lead through paid organizing opportunities,
- Investing in youth-led organizations who are doing crucial on the ground work and
- Using their platforms to spotlight and support youth-led groups and leaders.
Young people want to see more representation. By uplifting young organizers like Anderson Clayton within the party or Shelley Jackson to lead organizations doing the work in states making the difference, we show young people that we welcome them within our spaces and truly value their work and opinions.
Grassroots advocacy matters, and established organizations must understand that attending a church service closer to the election or dancing with students at campus rallies and photo ops won’t cut it anymore. Youth-led organizations are dedicated to transformational organizing and not transactional organizing. They have built legitimacy and trust amongst their peers, and established organizations must see and support the importance of this. By partnering with youth-led organizations, they can re-engage young voters who need to see established institutions as wanting to be less transactional and more committed to change. By making partnerships with youth-led organizations and making voters between the ages of 18-29 a priority, more groups within the democracy and progressive space will also follow their lead.
By Charlotte Hill, Democracy Docket contributor and interim director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.
Lastly, we must fund youth-led work year-round. Even after multiple election cycles, many political experts tend to look at youth voter turnout in 2020 and 2022 as a blip on the radar or an anomaly. But our truth is that young voters will continue making history because we know what’s at stake, and youth-led organizations are doing the work to make it happen. Yes, we understand that political campaigns need funding, but so do the foot soldiers building political power to ensure voters show up for those candidates. To continue those efforts leading into 2024, we must begin funding the work now and consistently throughout the year.
As a leader of a civic engagement organization and, more importantly, as a young voter, I am issuing a Bat-Signal to those that see our democracy is hanging in the balance: we need you to see us, we need you to invest in us, and we need you to allow us to lead.
If we don’t, we will be facilitating right-wing policymakers’ efforts to undermine democracy and suppress the youth vote to work in their favor come 2024.
Mary-Pat Hector is the CEO of Rise, a national student and youth organization fighting for free college, student debt relief and voter engagement.