SALT LAKE CITY — 2020 marks the first time millennials and Generation Z have surpassed baby boomers and older generations in the percentage of the electorate able to vote, nonpartisan research shows.
With staggering initial reports of youth turnout in swing states like Texas and Florida, and youth voters narrowly outpacing older voters in the 2018 midterms, it's clear that the younger generation will be an essential factor in determining this election and future ones.
A total of 23 million Generation Z voters — born after 1996 and ranging from ages 18 to 23 — are eligible to vote in this election, comprising 1 in 10 eligible voters. However, only 3 in 10 eligible Gen Zers cast ballots in the 2018 midterms. Gen Z has been characterized in demographic research as racially diverse, educated, deeply affected by COVID-19, and sharply different from older generations in beliefs on social issues and the role of government.
Unique challenges to voting
Young voters face unique difficulties on their way to the polls. Young people are a highly transient group, often moving out of their parents' homes or away to college. In such a hectic process, it's easy to forget to update voter registration to a current address or state of residency. As Gen Z is on track to be the highest-educated generation ever, moving near campus or living in dorms part-time often leads to ballots being sent to the wrong place.
Forwarding a ballot from a voter's official address to their current place of residency is legal, but filling out a ballot on behalf of a voter is not. In the Beehive state, occasionally parents of Latter-day Saint missionaries will fill out ballots for their children, but officials have warned against such practices.
The pandemic and differing university reopening plans have also led many students to attend courses from unexpected locations and created problems in other population-tracking metrics like the census.
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherri Swensen clarified to KSL.com that voters living in temporary locations — including out of state — can have a temporary address added to their file and forwarded to them as long as their permanent residency remains in Utah. She added that many voters have called to ask about such circumstances, although it is now too late to add forwarding addresses for November ballots.
I voted because I want to do everything I can to shape the future of the country.
–Grace Osusky, Gen Z voter
"The problem I'm running into is that I'm registered in Utah but currently living in California and getting my ballot is proving to be difficult," said Casey Overfield, a graduate student who moved out of state earlier this year.
"I've been super busy and was having trouble finding out if I could get my ballot forwarded to where I'm living now," she explained. "My roommate is going to send my ballot to California when it arrives at our apartment and fingers crossed I get it in time."
Grace Osusky, a University of Utah student originally from Moab, was able to vote because her parents forwarded her ballot as soon as it arrived.
"I already voted. I voted by mail ... Voting by mail is an incredibly smooth process," Osusky said. "I voted because I want to do everything I can to shape the future of the country. I have very strong preferences for who wins and I wanted to make sure I did my part in making that happen."
When asked why she thinks Gen Zers have such low turnout amid elections, Osusky said, "I think young people don't vote because they don't care. ... We're at a time in our lives where most of our parents still support us. Reality hasn't hit yet. When it fully does, though, and we see just how bad the world is or have an experience that opens our eyes, that's when it clicks."
Many young people are trying to vote for the first time in a pandemic with atypical voting processes, and mail-in votes by young people see a higher rate of rejection than most demographics due to a lack of information and resources surrounding the process.
A diverse generation
According to Pew Research Center, Gen Zers who are eligible to vote are more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations. Using Census Bureau Data, it found that 55% are non-Hispanic White, followed with 22% are Hispanic; 14% are Black, 5% are Asian and 5% are multiracial or other race.
What motivates me (to vote) is my family who's mostly made up of immigrants.
–Anahi, Gen Z voter
Alongside their diversity, they are more open to familial and societal change, more likely to believe there is racial inequality in the United States, and their social viewpoints often mirror the Millennials before them.
"What motivates me (to vote) is my family who's mostly made up of immigrants," a college student named Anahi said. "They can't vote, so I feel that it is my duty to be an advocate for them since their voice is silenced."
The sentiment was mirrored by another Gen Zer named Maggie, who stated, "I am voting this year because I have an obligation to vote for the rights of those who can't vote. I owe it to the refugees, immigrants, and anyone else seeking refuge in the states a president who will make it more inviting."
Digital civic engagement
Despite low voter turnout, Gen Z is often politically and socially engaged; as the first generation to grow up with ubiquitous internet connections, they pioneer the usage of social media for news consumption and activism.
"Voting has been easier than previous years because of the emphasis on registering. No matter where I go or what app I'm on, I'm reminded that I need to register. The process took less than 10 minutes and before I knew it, my ballot arrived in the mail," said Alexander Frampton, another member of Gen Z. "I'm voting because I know my voice will be heard, I can change my community and have a say where my tax dollars go."
"As an American citizen, the best thing we can do to protect our nation's values is to be a voice by casting our vote," he added.
Rising anxiety and shifting political standards
Generation Z is also characterized by rising levels of anxiety and depression compared to previous generations and is among the most likely to lose jobs or be adversely mentally affected by COVID-19. As a post 9/11 generation inheriting the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and faced with rising political polarization, some young people may feel intimidated by voting. Young voters are also likely to feel overwhelmed or hold themselves to high standards of political knowledge before casting ballots.
"I honestly don't plan on voting this year. I did get my ballot in the mail, so I might send it in just to say that I did it but I've currently no intention to do so," a Gen-Zer named Mats explained. "I don't feel like I know enough about either candidate ... with so many stories being skewed one way or the other, it's hard to trust any article I read. So I don't. Now I feel like it'd be an insult to the election to vote considering how out of the loop I am."
"As someone who's in the middle and undecided, and someone who cannot support otherization in any form, I don't want to be associated with either party ... I'd rather just abstain," he added.
Young Utah voters fall less along traditional partisan lines than their elders and are less likely to identify with a party at all, instead showing more openness to political candidates who fall outside the norm and suggesting a more diverse future for Utah's electorate.
Voter registration for the state of Utah concluded Friday, but for residents who still want to cast their ballots, in-person registration is available during early voting and on Election Day.
2020 Election: Increased mail-in voting, COVID-19, and a variety of state-by-state election formats contribute to a unique 2020 election. As a result, it is likely that many close House and Senate races, as well as the presidency, will not be called on Nov. 3. States may also shift in outcome in the days or weeks following the election — an expected change experts have warned about as results are returned. While human error happens, both mail-in and in-person voting have extremely low rates of fraud. The state of Utah has used vote-by-mail since 2012. It has safeguards in place to make sure every ballot it receives is legitimate.