By Generation Progress Staff
November 18, 2020
Credit : Liam Edwards on Unsplash

After years spent marching, calling and emailing representatives, registering voters, and demanding solutions to the issues that impact our generations, young people turned out in record-breaking numbers to make their voices heard in this election. And while many realize the hard work of creating long-lasting progressive change is not over, young voters have delivered a strong message about both their political power and progressive vision for the country.

Despite attempts to suppress the vote and challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, young people ages 18-29 expanded their share of the electorate in 2020, making up 17 percent of voters who cast a ballot in this election. The youth vote research organization CIRCLE has estimated that, once all votes are counted, between 53 and 56 percent of people under the age of 30 will have voted in this election—a record high. Both as a result of their turnout and their strong preference for candidates running on progressive platforms, young people had a particularly pronounced impact in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona.

In March, Generation Progress published a report that assessed the potential of young voters to decide the 2020 election. The report argued that young people, more of whom don’t identify strongly with either major political party compared to previous generations, vote based on a candidates’ plans and policies rather than on party. It also made a case for why young people were more likely to vote in this election than in previous ones. Now that the election has finished, it’s clear that this analysis was correct. Young people turned out in droves because they are deeply passionate about the issues that affect them—from racial justice to the climate crisis to COVID-19. And based on those priorities, they overwhelmingly voted for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. 

But the power of young voters extended far beyond the presidency. Our generations’ presence in this election was felt up and down the ballot, and will have a long-standing impact on the issues and principles that matter most to us.

Young People Voted for Addressing Climate Change

The climate crisis was a top priority for young voters in this election. For the first time in American history, every presidential and vice presidential debate featured questions explicitly about climate-related issues. President-elect Joe Biden ran on an ambitious climate and environmental justice platform that intends to achieve 100 percent carbon neutrality by the year 2050. Down ballot, many Congressional candidates prioritized the need for bold climate action and won, including Senator-elect Mark Kelly in Arizona and Senator-elect John Hickenlooper in Colorado. Several ballot initiatives that addressed the climate crisis also passed, including Ballot Measure 2A in Denver, Colorado, which will levy an additional sales tax in order to fund climate initiatives, and Nevada’s Question 6, which will amend the state’s constitution to require electric utilities to acquire 50 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030.

Young People Voted for Racial Justice in Our Criminal Legal System 

Following a summer of protests responding to police brutality, prosecutors who took progressive stances on criminal justice reform challenged DA incumbents who took a “status quo” approach to the justice system. Counties in Florida and Texas, two states with some of the highest incarceration rates in the country, elected two DAs that promised voters to shrink the criminal legal system. In Travis County, TX, Jose Garza beat incumbent Martin Harry and in Orange County, FL, Monique Worrell beat Jose Torroella. Both incumbents ran on a platform promising reform while the incumbents vowed “law and order.” Progressive prosecutors in Colorado and Michigan were also elected on the pledge to reduce incarceration and not rely on cash bail. These local elections highlight the voters’ push for justice reform and the demand for shrinking the criminal legal system.

Young People Voted for Drug Decriminalization

Historically, the majority of Millennial voters have supported cannabis decriminalization. And this past election we saw a number of states take steps towards ending the “war on drugs.” Voters in five states passed ballot initiatives that legalized medical or recreational uses of cannabis, while Oregon took a further step and decriminalized the use of all drugs and increased the state’s addiction and health services. Voters in these states highlight a shift in our country in viewing addiction as a public health issue, rather than a criminal one. Voters in Washington, D.C. followed suit by passing Initiative 81 decriminalizing psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”). Older demographics are following in the footsteps of young people and denouncing archaic drug laws that have disproportionately affected people of color. 

Young People Ran for Office and Voted for Younger, More Diverse Leadership

Not only did young people turn out to vote in record numbers in the2020 election, they also ran—and won—races themselves.. From 2018 to 2020, the Millennial Action Project, tracked a 266 percent increase in Millennials running for Congress. Come January 2021’s inauguration, the country’s elected leadership will also be markedly more diverse and feature several historic “firsts.” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a daughter of immigrants, will be the first woman, first Asian-American, and first Black vice president in the history of the United States. Mondaire Jones (NY-17) andAfro-Latino Ritchie Torres (NY-15), who are both Millennials, will be the first openly gay Black men in Congress. Sara McBride, who was elected to a seat in the Delaware state Senate, will be the highest ranking openly trans woman in the U.S. Continuing a trend that we noted after the 2018 midterm election, the 2020 election will result in state and local governments that better represent and embody the diversity of this country.  

Young People Voted for Student Debt Relief

Young people, particularly young people of color, voted for solutions to the student debt crisis. While the student debt crisis currently impacts over 45 million Americans and the total debt held by borrowers reached an astonishing total of $1.6 trillion, the racial disparities inherent to student debt and higher education have been both deeply exacerbated and more widely exposed. One in three young people have student debt, and women and people of color are statistically far more likely to need to borrow, borrow more, and struggle to pay off their debt. For these reasons, student loan voters showed up and voted for the only presidential candidate with a plan for addressing the student debt crisis. The Biden-Harris campaign presented a detailed proposal to cancel a portion of student debt and make college debt-free for under-resourced families, while addressing the root causes of inequity and inaccessibility in higher education—which young people and student debt experts have been calling for for years. 

Conclusion

The 2020 election may be over, but young people are not finished making our voices heard. Our generations will continue to hold our elected leaders accountable and push for solutions to the issues that affect our communities and our world. 

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