Getting Young Voters to the Polls

By Melanie Eversly

Young Black Americans have a promising future with the voting booth.

That is the word from activists who are connecting with young Black voting-age Americans. Activists are working to help Gen Z and Millennials understand their vote gives them local, state and national influence. While young Americans of color may have shunned the ballot box in large numbers during the 2016 presidential election, all indications now are that many Black adults under 30 are doing what they need to vote in November. This is happening in spite of the coronavirus pandemic and the many voter suppression efforts.

“I actually think this younger generation is one of the most politicized in history,” said Kayla Reed, a 30-year-old activist in St. Louis and an organizer of the Aug. 28 Movement for Black Lives - Black National Convention, aimed at young people.

Tiffany Loftin, the 31-year-old national director for the NAACP youth and college division noted: “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people I’m speaking to are voting and they are not only convinced, but they are enraged, they are upset, they are tired of watching the country go in the direction it’s going.”

Loftin oversees 340 middle school, high school and college units aimed at drawing young people into the voting booth.

Some of the energy is due to the front-and-center issues before young people this year, activists said. Young people are engaged when it comes to their world, according to Loftin. They are angry about Breonna Taylor, the young Black emergency room medical technician fatally shot in her home by Louisville, Ky., police in March. They are worried about health disparities during a worldwide pandemic. They are concerned that Black people are being coerced into testing vaccines. They are angry about premature moves around the country to reopen schools. They are concerned about student debt and Black borrowing overall, Loftin said.

The new focus on young voters came after a 2016 presidential election that took many by surprise, when Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College vote. Analysts declared that young Americans of color were among those who did not cast ballots and helped hand the presidency to Trump.

In 2016, 46 percent of young Black voters did not cast ballots, according to a SurveyMonkey poll of about 100,000 voters released in 2017. They were more likely to have supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Democrat, in the Democratic primary.

Voter turnout of Black Americans under 30 in 2008, the first year that Barack Obama ran for president, was 58.2 percent, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. By 2012, that number dipped a bit for that same group to 53.7 percent.

The 2018 midterm elections saw a 53.4 percent voter turnout, according to the Census Bureau. This was the highest midterm turnout since 1978, when the bureau started logging such numbers. Among Black voters under 30, turnout surged from 24 percent in the 2014 midterm elections to 35 percent in 2018, according to a Brookings Institution evaluation of census figures.

While that data showed some promise, other data shows activists still have work ahead of them, according to a spokeswoman for When We All Vote, the nonprofit launched in 2018 by former First Lady Michelle Obama, actor/singer Janelle Monae, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and more. The organization works to erase voting barriers.

“In 2018, we saw the largest turnout of young people in decades for a midterm election,” said Crystal Carson, communications director for When We All Vote. “Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of young people still did not cast their ballot, so we know there is still work to be done.”

In July, a survey of six key election states by the American University Black Swing Voter Project of Black Americans under 30 showed that 45 percent don’t plan to vote for either Democratic nominee Joe Biden or President Trump, don’t plan to vote at all or are not sure. Many don’t trust the political process, according to the survey.

Organizers are juggling multiple challenges in order to make sure the trend stays positive. There is the pandemic, which is limiting traditional face-to-face and door-to-door get-out-the-vote efforts. Then there are the many places that are resisting the push to make voter registration digital or enforcing strict identification requirements. Then, there is a gap when it comes to young people understanding how Democracy works.

As BlackPAC Executive Director Adrianne Shropshire sees it, young people have been missing that true understanding of the political system and, deep down, are embarrassed to ask about it. Shropshire’s organization aims to harness Black American political power.

Some of the young people who took part in focus groups put together by her organization in 2018 did not understand midterm elections, Shropshire recalled. Some of the participants also did not understand the concept of a major political party retaking the Congress and what that might mean, she said.

“When people don’t think their vote matters it’s because they legitimately don’t think it matters,” Shropshire said.

This lack of understanding is tied to a disconnect between what young people know their communities need and what elected officials and government offer them.

“I think when people made the decision not to vote in 2016, they were making a legitimate political statement about what they wanted and what they didn’t see in front of them,” Shropshire said. “I think some of this is people making pretty sophisticated political calculations.”

This is a view that some young Black Americans who have said they will not vote expressed to The Crisis, but they declined to go on the record.

A frequent topic of conversation is the misfortune that many have seen in a year some view as cursed, and organizers said 2020 has proven to be a challenge in terms of connecting with young voters. The pandemic and the widespread grief that has come with it, along with the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and America’s subsequent racial reckoning, have diluted all other messages.

“The pandemic was hard to navigate and this summer, we were dealing with the 50-state uprising where people were in the streets — and that created a reality where talking about voting maybe wasn’t the primary thing,” said Reed of the Movement for Black Lives.

Voter suppression has created challenges too, said Loftin of the NAACP.

“It’s not just about the candidates, but also sorting machines being taken out by the U.S. Postal Service, precincts being shut down, states that refuse to make voter registration digital,” she said.

Even with all of this, organizers believe they have found a formula that is helping young Black people become more amenable to the idea that elected officials and the political process are supposed to support them. What has worked is a mix of the tried-and-true talking to people one-on-one, while observing social distancing guidelines, and new technology that makes wider outreach possible. Social media and streaming platforms are part of the mix.

Loftin, for instance, interacts with her followers on Instagram, and even asked recently who was not voting. Reed’s organization has been able to track the numbers of viewers to the Black National Convention through its website.

Members of Reed’s organization have knocked on 40,000 doors. The group’s virtual convention in August and a preliminary meeting tied to it have helped young Black voters create a political agenda that includes a climate response, racial concerns and inclusion of the queer and trans community, she said. Video of the preliminary meeting has been viewed by 500 activists in 23 states, Reed said.

Going forward, those fighting for change and voter empowerment should focus on supporting and working with grassroots organizations, said Reed, who co-founded Action St. Louis after the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen, at the hands of police in Ferguson, Mo.

“Action St. Louis and the Dream Defenders and BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing for Communities) in Milwaukee and BLM in Atlanta — are organizers that stay in the community well after the election,” Reed said.

Organizations also must figure out ways that young people can feel they can safely ask how the political system works without worrying about ridicule, Shropshire advised.

“It’s part of our community’s responsibility too, to make sure we are creating spaces so we are helping people to develop an analysis and basic understanding of our government,” she said. “When we engage them in a conversation and say, ‘Oh, it’s important to vote,’ and they start to say things that we connect with apathy, it really is a defense mechanism because people are embarrassed … that they cannot engage in this complicated conversation about politics.”

Shropshire’s organization has tried to address this through a program called Black Citizenship in Action presented in conjunction with 14 other organizations aimed at empowering voters called Black Citizenship in Action. She likened it to the “citizenship schools” launched in South Carolina in the mid 1950s by NAACP member Septima Clark to help Black Americans pass the literacy tests required in some places for voter registration. The modern version educates participants on their rights as citizens and voting rights history. The program has gone online now, Shropshire said.

When We All Vote is connecting with young people where they live, so to speak.

The group has launched a Vote 4EVER Merch campaign that involves selling clothing, accessories, jewelry, home goods and beauty products from businesses owned by African Americans and women. The line features products from masks to T-shirts with messages urging people to vote.

“Many young people like to make statements through what they wear and with initiatives like these we hope to motivate them to get registered and vote,” Carson, of When We All Vote, said.

The group also aired a comedy special on ABC TV in September with actor/comedian Kevin Hart called VOMO: Vote Or Miss Out that targeted young people.

From what Shropshire has seen, outreach from all directions is helping young people make that connection between themselves, the voting booth and the government their taxes are supporting. They already know the issues that they want to tackle.

“It’s not like they are living in a vacuum,” Shropshire said. “People are seeing the effects of COVID-19. People are seeing the racism that exists. They recognize that Donald Trump and the Republican Party in general not only doesn’t have our community’s interest at heart but are actively trying to damage our community and they know it’s important for that reason.”

The NAACP youth and college students Loftin works with registered 1,500 people in a one-day blitz at the end of the summer.

“Young folks are using their phones and apps and social media platforms — some are sharing postcards and pledge cards,” Loftin said. “We’ve been training people since last fall so I think we’re in a good spot.”