As we look ahead to the presidential debates and what's sure to be a heated battle for hearts and minds in the next 40-plus days, here’s some advice for the Biden-Harris ticket. Stop taking young people of color for granted — because you might lose if you do.
If the Democrats think young people aren’t worth the trouble, they should think again. Polling data from across the country show that young people, especially Black and young people of color, are ready to be activated. They are already engaged and are ready to act — and potentially vote — on issues that could push the Democrats to victory in November, from Black Lives Matter, climate justice and immigrant rights to police violence and education equity. It is not about whether they care about issues — it is about whether the party cares enough about them to invest in the strategies proven to mobilize them.
For example, a recent poll from Power California and Latino Decisions revealed that young Californians of color are deeply concerned about their health, their economic security and their future as the COVID-19 crisis continues. The poll showed these young people are highly engaged on social issues, and they are placing a high value on voting this year. In fact, 80 percent of the young people in the survey said they think it’s more important to vote this year compared to prior elections. Overwhelming majorities supported Black Lives Matter protests against police violence, and wanted leaders to take action to stop police brutality. The poll also showed that the pandemic and recent protests over police brutality has shaped their political outlook, with more than 60 percent saying that voting is a powerful way to make positive change.
Young people of color need to hear from candidates that they are valued and that their perspectives are taken seriously. Otherwise, political campaigns will alienate a potentially powerful voting bloc. With large numbers being first-time voters, young people need more information about the basics of voting, like how and when and when to vote, and what the procedures are for voting by mail. This is even more important when it comes to mobilizing young immigrants in battleground states like Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Texas — whose parents may not always be eligible to vote.
We can learn a lot from the 400-percent surge in turnout amongst 18-24-year-olds in Los Angeles County between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, and organizations like Power California that worked directly to empower young voters of color. In 2018, they trained young people to reach out to their peers and demystified the voting process. They also talked about the age gap in voting, the history of the fight for voting rights, and the power of the vote to make a difference at all levels. The fact that the messengers were young people from local communities was key, as was the combination of voter education and voter registration.
If the Democrats wanted to invest in one strategy for getting out the youth vote in November and beyond, that kind of peer-to-peer engagement has been proven to increase turnout. My research has consistently shown that people respond better to appeals from peers who look like them and talk like them. They are responsive to members of their community who share their interests. With training and support, young people can be at the forefront of registering, educating and activating each other.
Of course, these kinds of strategies must be adapted in the time of COVID. Power California and its statewide partners are using Zoom, social media and other virtual means to make sure they connect with as many young people as safely as possible.
The Democratic Party could take a lesson from what’s working in California and other states to support young people to play their rightful role in elections and democracy. And we need to start this work at the high school level instead of waiting for everyone to turn 18. In the two years preceding the 2018 election, 200,000 young people “pre-registered” to vote after they turned 16, thanks to a visionary state law passed in 2014. That total is now over half million.
By reaching young people early, and by educating them about the basics of voting and why it’s important, we can activate a segment of the electorate that has for too long been ignored. And we can make our politics — and our policies — more reflective of the generations that will have to live with the consequences of today’s elections for decades to come.
Veronica Terriquez is an Associate Professor of sociology at U.C. Santa Cruz and fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Behavioral Sciences. She has published extensively on the civic and political participation of youth from immigrant and communities of color.