November 9, 2020

Poised to take on the most consequential issues of their time, Gen Z voted in record numbers

Young voters on why it's important to participate in the political process. 'We're going to be living with these policies for the next 60, 70, 80 years.'

Voter turnout hit an all-time high for the 2020 presidential election. Young people were a large part of that trend. Photo via adamkaz/Getty Images

Gen Z may be the generation that’s just reaching adulthood, but they’re already having an impact on politics. Since the results of the 2020 election have been determined, we know some key figures about how many young people participated in the civic process.

According to Pew Research Center, there are more than 23 million eligible Gen Z voters—an increase of more than 16 million since 2016. But how many of them turned out? Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), estimated as of Nov. 6 that about 50 percent of young people ages 18-29 turned out for this election. Researchers also project that number may rise to 53 to 56 percent, once final calculations are complete. CIRCLE also estimates that the youth share of the vote in this election is 17 percent, up from 16 percent in 2016. That estimate is from Nov. 4, and is based on data from the National Election pool national exit poll conducted by Edison Research, so could be subject to change as all the votes, including mail-in ballots, are tallied.

Nonprofit College to Congress, which provides opportunities on Capitol Hill for high-achieving students who otherwise would not be able to afford such an internship, gathered together four of its alumni on Oct. 27 to discuss how Gen Z participates in the political process, and what the youth voter turnout signals for the future of American democracy. The nonprofit is a winner of a 2020 Renewal Award, which is a program of The Atlantic and Allstate.

While Gen Z isn’t afraid to take a stand on important issues—with many young activists speaking out on gun control, climate change, and racism, it’s often a struggle for young people to vote. According to a working paper from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, young people face more barriers to voting than older Americans.

“The young people in my circle, we’re still trying to find our political sea legs. I think there are a lot of people who are active and organizing protests, and I don’t want to discount those things,” said Onyx Brunner, a College to Congress alumnus who recently graduated from Yale University. “I think that those are really important, but I also think that we also need to do the other half of the work and engage with elections both by going to the ballot box and by organizing in the interim, so that we’re selecting the candidates that we want, so that we can really progress and make real political change.”

Social media also potentially played a factor in voter turnout, with social networks sending push notifications with links to voter registration and ways for users to share that they voted.

“I definitely think that social media has made this all a lot more exciting and a lot more dynamic,” said Cindy Ng, from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “I think that’s really great that they’re making the process more fun for people, because I think when people consider politics, they think, ‘Oh, you need to know all of these policies. You need to understand all of the nuances in order to vote correctly.’ But people forget that the reason why we vote is because we believe that the changes that we want to see for our nation are going to come.”

Youth voter turnout likely did have an impact on the outcome of the election. According to CIRCLE, nearly 20 percent of residents in the battleground states are young people, among the highest rates in the country. In key swing states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, young voters made up 14 to 21 percent of the total voter turnout.

“Us younger generations, we’re going to have the most amount of time with those decisions,” said Mychale Cooper, a recent graduate from the University of Alabama. “So for me, it is more pivotal for us to get out there and vote because we’re going to be living with these policies for the next 60, 70, 80 years.”

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project.
all stories