Young Voters Are Raising Their Voices at Polls and as Candidates
By Josh Lafazan, Nassau County Legislator, and Caleb Hanna, State Representative, West Virginia House of Delegates
Democrats Must Act on Issues That Matter to Young Voters
By Josh Lafazan – Nassau County Legislator, District 18
As a member of the Nassau County Legislature in Long Island, New York, first elected in my early 20s, I believe Democrats should focus on younger voters to secure and maintain a majority across the country. But for Democrats to win, our party must do more than listen to young voters. We must also encourage them to cast a ballot. Given their increasing population segment, young voters have the power to decide elections. According to the latest population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials, defined as people ages 26 through 41 in 2022, have overtaken baby boomers as the largest living adult generation in the country, with 72 million cohort members. Generation Z, comprised of people ages 10 through 25 in 2022, is close behind with 65 million cohort members. In last month’s elections, these two groups made their voices heard.
Researchers at Tufts University estimate that 27% of youth (ages 18-29) cast a ballot in 2022, making this the midterm election with the second-highest youth voter turnout in almost three decades. Included in this high participation rate were an estimated 8.3 million newly eligible young voters who turned 18 since the 2020 general election. “Youth are increasing their electoral participation, leading movements, and making their voices heard on key issues that affect their communities,” said the Tufts research team. The impact of young voters in the 2022 midterms was also evident in statewide races. For example, in the Wisconsin gubernatorial election, 70% of young voters supported Democratic Governor Tony Evers and 28% supported Republican challenger Tim Michels. In addition, exit poll data from nine competitive states (Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), shows the aggregate youth voter turnout was 31%. These numbers underscore that young Americans could significantly alter future elections.
With Their Names on Ballots, Young Voters Could Make Lasting Changes
Yet as a young voter, going to the polls on election day should not be the limit of our influence. I believe we must not only vote, but also consider running for office and advocate for federal support on issues that matters to us. As the author of a guide to political success for Millennials, I know firsthand the lasting changes that can come from running for elected office. The first bill I sponsored in the Nassau County Legislature, which became law in 2018, ensured that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing could access critical information through a sign language interpreter at all emergency press conferences held by Nassau County officials.
My involvement in local government is not unique. Generation Z and Millennials are stepping up to run for elected office in their communities. According to the Millennial Action Project, one out of every six candidates for Congress this past midterm election cycle came from the Millennial generation, which is “a 57% increase in the number of Millennial candidates compared to 2020.” And the first member of Generation Z, 25-year-old Democrat Maxwell Frost, won in Florida’s 10th Congressional District. As Frost and others know, if we want to create change, we must act.
Our involvement in the electoral process is critical. Without our voices in the halls of government, our priorities have rarely transitioned from rhetoric to law. This inertia with our many priorities, including health care, voting rights, and climate change makes young voters skeptical of the next politician who claims to represent our interests.
Consider a Federal Office for Youth Affairs
Aside from listening and governing for us, what can Democrats do to address this lack of action on our concerns? I believe that real change requires concrete action, not a temporary fix or a limited task force. Democrats should introduce legislation to establish an Office of Youth Affairs (OYA). The OYA would be permanent and federally funded. The executive director would report to the White House, providing the credibility and attention that OYA would warrant. Its staff must reflect the broad diversity of young people across the country and dedicate themselves to the welfare of young Americans. OYA’s ambitious agenda must begin with a benchmark of issues impacting young people.
Once OYA receives congressional approval, President Biden could embark on a national tour to promote it. He could create grassroots support through visits to high schools, college campuses, and community centers. Potential OYA partners could include the Sunrise Movement, Generation Citizen, Junior State of America, and young Democratic and Republican organizations. Celebrities, influencers, and individuals with platforms could promote the White House agenda through national campaigns, such as mental health, voter registration, and mask-wearing, and raise awareness and interest in OYA.
Our generation has been lectured to for years about our contributions to the country. We could finally have a vehicle for real change through this new federal office. Democrats would be wise to champion OYA. Their support would help mobilize younger voters and hopefully, the next generation of elected officials.
Relatability Is Key to Young People Joining the Political Process
By Caleb Hanna – State Representative, West Virginia House of Delegates
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” I first heard of someone named Barack Obama in the third grade. I remember picking up a newspaper on my teacher’s desk and seeing photos of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. At the time, I didn’t understand the political arena and the policies behind these candidates. I did know that I saw someone who looked like me. He was a person to whom an eight-year-old boy born and raised in a small town in West Virginia could relate. This quote from former President Barack Obama is the motto I have taken with me since I was a child and has inspired me through three successful state legislative races.
Being the Change I Wanted to See
Throughout my grade school career, I thought about the kind of change I wanted to create in this world. I had the desire to be a catalyst for change right in my local community. As a senior in high school, I put my name on the ballot to run for West Virginia’s House of Delegates. I wanted to represent the people in my community and the place I call home.
I am now the youngest African American in the United States elected to a state legislature. I won my district seat during the past three terms. This success was not without struggles. During my first campaign in 2018, I knocked on over 3,000 doors and I slept in my car between parades and events. I wrote campaign donor thank-you letters amid writing assignments for high school and college. I made this sacrifice because of my desire to be a catalyst for change. I would not hesitate to do it all over again. This ambition would have been lost if it weren’t for the first African American president. He became a relatable inspiration.
Young Voters Can Lead Their Generation
I say all this about myself to highlight the fact that people are more likely to trust (and vote for) someone who relates to them. When we inspire a generation of young people who want to run for office, we inspire them to vote, and we inspire them to be more informed about the policies affecting them every day.
How do we build this inspiration, this desire to get involved? First, we must introduce younger generations to politics earlier. In West Virginia, the Secretary of State’s office offers an annual statewide program for youth voter registration, the Jennings Randolph Award, which recognizes high schools that register at least 85% of their senior class to vote. The initial introduction to the political process through this award program is a movement toward a more informed generation of voters. Second, we must encourage younger generations to run for office. Getting involved in politics can look different for everyone. What matters is taking a step in the direction of learning more about issues and having a passion to sustain or change them. Whether that is getting started with running for city council, a school district, or (like myself) a seat in your state house, encouraging this action is crucial for a shift to a younger political arena.
The Next Generation of Candidates Needs Our Support
Organizations like Turning Point USA, Run Gen Z, and Young Americans for Liberty have a huge following. Why? Because they relate to young people and focus on issues they care about. Nobody finds every aspect of politics or government interesting. The process of policymaking can be a major turnoff for some young people. To increase their engagement in the political process, we need to understand issues that affect them and help them become aware of how they can impact these issues.
Creating a younger generation of candidates and a more educated voter base is something we can all help with. Start talking about policies that affect you. Encourage high school students to register to vote. Begin to see how you can create change. Let’s make seeing younger candidates on the ballot a regular occurrence. Let’s act on the change we want to make. As young adults, we have the power to do that.
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