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Youth Activists Are Transforming the Election by Leading Protesters to the Polls

In three major battleground states, early voting from people under 29 has increased by almost 700 percent since 2016.

Taylor Hall leads a march from the statehouse to the city county building while using a megaphone during the rally of the "Crossroads of Democracy: Day of Action" outside the Indiana Statehouse on October 17, 2020.

For the past decade, ever since students at 100 universities staged protests in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, youth activism in the United States has been on the rise. Youth organizers involved in the Movement for Black Lives have played a key role in ongoing protests against the police killings of Black people and other people of color, which The New York Times suggests may be the largest social movement in U.S. history.

Inspired by the student-led movement against gun violence that formed in the aftermath of shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, and civil disobedience in opposition to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, the youth-led global climate strike protest movement brought what The Guardian calls the largest-ever climate mobilization to the streets in 2019.

But political analysts such as Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell have posed perennial doubts about whether young people will vote with the same conviction with which they have joined strikes and demonstrations. “In addition to being (obviously) the laziest, most narcissistic and most entitled generation ever,” Rampell wrote in 2015, “millennials have claimed for themselves yet another generational superlative: least likely to vote.”

Now, however, election research by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) suggests that millennials, along with Gen Z — which together make up 37 percent of the electorate — are translating protest turnout to the polls.

Early voting by 18- to 29-year-olds is up in every state CIRCLE is tracking, as compared to votes cast by the same date in 2016. In Florida, North Carolina and Michigan — three major battleground states — voters under 29 have cast a combined 607,907 early votes, where the same age and geographic group only cast 76,829 ballots at the same point in 2016: an almost 700 percent increase. In 2016, Donald Trump won Michigan by a mere 10,704 votes.

Pre-election polling, also from Tufts University, shows the top issue for youth across racial and ethnic groups is the environment or climate change, followed closely by racism, and health care access and affordability. For the youngest voters, climate is just one of multiple existential threats, with a palpably finite window to address it.

Penn State University professor and eminent climate scientist Michael Mann told The Guardian that a second Trump administration would be “game over” for the climate. “Another four years of what we’ve seen under Trump, which is to outsource environmental and energy policy to the polluters and dismantle protections put in place by the previous administration … would make [halving emissions in 10 years to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius] essentially impossible,” he said of the emissions reductions target international climate scientists have established as a baseline for curbing the worst effects of climate breakdown.

Youth climate activists outside of the U.S. have also rallied around the November 3 election, including Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, who has called on voters in the United States to consider the impact the U.S. — the world’s most significant historic emitter of carbon dioxide — has on countries like hers, where historic flooding this summer captured minimal global media attention. The August floods in Uganda displaced over 8,000 people.

On the first day of early voting in New York on October 24, hundreds of young voters marched to the polls after rallies in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. “We are out here fighting for climate justice and for racial justice,” organizer Saad Amer told marchers on a megaphone. “And the way we fight is we take it from the streets to the polls.” Activists who showed up to Amer’s #MarchToThePolls event represented groups focused on various issues including climate action, like Extinction Rebellion and the Sierra Club; and policy reform around racial justice, like the Black Women’s March and Freedom March NYC.

Social media campaigns, such as Prom At the Polls, have also been a force behind early youth voting turnout. The campaign is a youth-led initiative urging social media users to treat voting as they might prom, to pick a date, to dress up and to document their day on social media. Younger activists with Oakland-based climate activist group Youth vs. Apocalypse have launched the #ThisIsTheTime campaign across social media platforms, aimed at holding voting-age adults accountable.

Youth activist umbrella organization Future Coalition has a bus that’s been bringing socially distanced “Get Out The Vote” parades and pop-up drag shows from Houston, Texas, to Canton, Ohio. Numerous youth-led letter-writing campaigns are targeting voters in swing states.
Groups such as the Sunrise Movement have been working the phones, deploying what is known as “distributed organizing” tactics the Bernie Sanders campaign developed in 2016 to pull in volunteers and immediately engage them in recruiting friends and hosting events.

“What Sunrise does best is throwing down on congressional candidates across the country and proving that you can win on the Green New Deal,” Sunrise Movement Electoral Organizing Coordinator Michele Weindling said on an October 21 mass call, during which 1,400 people dialed in. Democratic nominee for New York’s 16th congressional district, Jamaal Bowman, was on the call. Bowman said that he “would not be here if it were not for the Sunrise Movement,” which helped fuel his successful campaign against 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel in the primaries. Sunrise Creative Director Alex O’Keefe claims 70 percent of candidates Sunrise has endorsed have won elections this year.

Sunrise organizers have identified four priority swing states: Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Organizers in these states have been holding turnout parties, during which they spend a few hours on Zoom, calling friends and acquaintances, collecting voting pledges and leading socially distanced protests for a Green New Deal. They have also led early morning “wake up” protests, including the much-publicized protest outside of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s house, urging him and other senators to wait until after the election to appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court.

For people living outside of swing states, Weindling says Sunrise has organized a “Get Out The Vote Force” to make calls on behalf of down-ballot candidates in the few remaining days of the election season. Organizers with Sunrise are asking volunteers to choose one of three regions and focus on getting voting commitments for specific candidates, like Beth Doglio in Washington, Jon Hoadley in Michigan and Marquita Bradshaw in Tennessee, and other progressive candidates with organizing experience or demonstrated commitments to social justice that are committed to passing a Green New Deal. “If the election goes our way, we can start the fight for a Green New Deal on day one of the Biden administration,” Weindling said. “And if it doesn’t, we have fighters in our corner across the country no matter what.”

Last-minute voter mobilization efforts, like what Sunrise is doing, could be particularly impactful in this election, founder of the Environmental Voter Project, Nathaniel Stinnett, told Political Climate. “The logistics of voting are a little more delicate than they ever have been before,” he said. “So, simply holding people’s hands and walking them through where their drop boxes are, why they need to put their ballot in the mail earlier than they have in previous years, and things like that are enormously important.”

Stinnett says reading the “tea leaves” based on early voting turnout numbers could be misleading. “We don’t really know what to read into because this is a completely unique electoral experience,” he said, noting that while Biden is hovering around a double-digit lead in the polls, Republicans still have plenty of time to turn out.

And not all youth climate activist groups are progressive. The American Conservation Coalition (ACC) is a group of student activists formed in 2017 to “give conservatives a voice on the environment,” funded by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Audubon Society. As ACC Communications Director Karly Matthews told Truthout, ACC and its education arm, The Conservative Coalition (TCC), promote market-based energy technologies and public-private partnerships in the face of climate change.

The group is urging conservative climate-conscious voters to the polls and has endorsed a list of 37 Republican candidates running in congressional races, highlighting those who have expressed a commitment to participating in bipartisan efforts to move the U.S. toward global net zero emissions by 2050. But the ACC has not endorsed a presidential candidate, so it is currently unclear how its get-out-the-vote efforts will affect the presidential race. “At the highest level, we are not really convinced by Trump or Biden,” Matthews said.

Meanwhile, progressive youth organizers are busy not only drumming up enthusiasm around the election but also educating themselves on how to combat voter suppression. They’re showing up at the polls and urging voters to call friends or family and get them to show up before they leave, offering water bottles and other types of support to voters as they wait in long lines.

Progressive activists are aware that even a landslide turnout for Biden might not guarantee a smooth transition. Climate activist Jeremy Ornstein told Truthout over email that Sunrise is not shying away from planning for a coup-like scenario.

“If Trump suppresses protests, claims victory without counting every vote, or tries to get electors to declare victory for him without winning the popular vote, that’s when our movement calls for a strike,” Ornstein said. “We refuse to go to school, refuse to go to work. We’ve seen the power of essential workers in the past many months, and know that we could bring this nation to a grinding halt.”

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