Young People Are Democracy’s Superheroes: Will 2022 Candidates Listen to Them?

Light blue background with blue toned images of young people registering to vote.

The 2022 midterm elections are less than four weeks away and democracy itself is on the line. Republicans, steeped in white supremacy, nationalism, racism and right-wing populist illiberalism, are eliminating basic human rights, criminalizing our bodies and identities, banning books, inciting violence and promising to nullify elections. The next election may be our last chance to save democracy from the rise of Republican authoritarianism.

Winning means doing everything possible to keep far-right, orange-toned populists from reaching the U.S. House, Senate and governors’ mansions and electing secretaries of state and attorneys general throughout the country who are committed to democracy. 

Winning also requires that Democratic candidates listen to the demands of young voters and inspire greater numbers to vote than ever before. 

For the past two cycles, young voters have, in fact, been the superheroes of our democracy. In 2018, they turned out in record numbers to take back Congress from Trumpism. In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic and widespread economic uncertainty, half of all young people ages 18 to 29 voted, an increase of 11% from 2016. Young voters helped save the country from then-President Donald Trump serving a second term, and only a few months later, helped elect two Democrats from Georgia to the U.S. Senate.

We did not stop there: Young people worked incessantly to protect democracy. Through efforts like the Alliance for Youth Action’s “Democracy Done Right” campaign, youth organizers throughout the country have passed voting rights legislation, expanded youth voting options and protected democracy even in the face of threats from the right. For the 2018 midterm elections, Engage Miami fought for and won early voting sites at Miami college campuses, while both New Era Colorado and Washington Bus secured ballot drop-off boxes on campuses across their respective states. Thanks to efforts by MOVE Texas to expand polling locations on Texas college campuses, there was a dramatic increase in student voter turnout. And in 2021, Forward Montana Foundation successfully sued to overturn a law restricting access to the ballot for voters who turn 18 the month before Election Day. 

Young people are constantly told that if we just turn out to vote, we will change the country. And since 2018, we have done just that.

Much of this work was undone by radical GOP lawmakers at the state level and Democrats in Congress failed to pass national voting rights protections in part by wasting too much time negotiating with the very people who want to suppress our votes. 

Young voters keep showing up, but our demands and concerns are often the first on the chopping block. Over the last two years, the voices of millennials and Gen Zers have been heard at the White House and on the Hill. While President Joe Biden campaigned on canceling a portion of student debt, for example, he dragged his feet for nearly two years until finally announcing a decision. It took continuous pressure from youth organizers, many of them in the Alliance for Youth Action Network, to force the administration to act. 

Let’s be clear: $10,000 is not enough to address the racial wealth gap exacerbated by the student debt crisis, and the income cap will add a burdensome hurdle for borrowers to prove their earnings, once again forcing younger people to go through bureaucratic hoops never required of the wealthy. We are celebrating this initial win, but we want candidates who are committed to doing more. The measure of success should not be “did we do something?” but “did we fix the problem?” In a recent poll conducted by the Alliance for Youth Action, in collaboration with Civiqs, 88% of young Democratic voters in battleground states said they plan to vote in November. But polls don’t vote; people do. And the Democratic Party has some work to do. In our poll, young Democratic and independent voters voiced deep dissatisfaction both with Biden and Congress.

Our poll makes clear that actual turnout will depend not on party affiliation but on the moral clarity and bold, unapologetic stances that candidates bring to critical priorities such as democracy reform and voting rights, abortion rights and student debt. 

The stakes are far too high to take anything — especially our democracy — for granted, and youth organizers in the Alliance Network know that. The failure to protect voting rights has serious consequences: A 2021 report from CIRCLE at Tufts University noted that new barriers erected at the state level pose increased obstacles to both registering to vote and casting a ballot. The report concluded what we already know: The rise in youth voting can’t be sustained without “concerted efforts from lawmakers, educators, organizers, and other stakeholders to ensure that young people are prepared and encouraged to vote.”

Young people are constantly told that if we just turn out to vote, we will change the country. And since 2018, we have done just that. Yet during that time, we have seen relatively little progress on the issues most important to us. You need us — the country needs us — to vote in November. We need to see tangible action and commitments from the candidates who want our votes. 

Dakota Hall is the executive director of Alliance for Youth Action, a national network of local organizations that works with young people to engage in our democracy as voters, organizers and leaders.