Sydney Lee tried to cast her vote in the Wisconsin primary on April 7, but everything went wrong. She ordered her absentee ballot a month beforehand — it never came. She wanted to go to the polls, but the lines in the five open polling stations in Milwaukee (condensed from 100) had a 3-4 hour wait. Sydney has asthma and she was afraid of contracting COVID-19. As it turns out, Sydney made the healthy choice: We know that as of April 30, 52 polls workers and national guard members contracted COVID on election day. Nobody knows how many voters contracted the virus that day.

Sydney's experience should be a warning to us all. What happened in Wisconsin — changing election dates, too few poll workers, reduced polling stations, long lines, disappearing absentee ballots — is going to be the universal voting experience in November. For the youngest voters — Generation Z — that experience will be extra confusing.

In America, we constantly decry the fact that young people don't vote, and historically the statistics have substantiated that complaint. In nonmidterm elections, the youngest generation typically turns out at 45-50 percent — up to 20 points lower than older groups of voters. In midterm elections that number falls into the teens. We also know why these turnout rates are so low: lack of connection between daily lived experience and political participation; lack of knowledge about the process of voting and what's on the ballot; practical issues around where to best register and how to actually cast your vote. 

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Yet, despite the fact that these barriers have long existed for young people, in the 2018 midterm election we saw evidence of a new trend: The youngest generation turned out at nearly 28 percent. For college students that rate was higher: 40 percent. College women voted at more than 4 points higher than their male peers.

The reality is that Generation Z is prepared and motivated to vote, and we're doing everything in our power to make it really, really hard. Students do not know whether or where they will be in college this fall. They have to make decisions about where to register (or re-register) based on state-specific voting rules currently in flux due to legal rulings that will be challenged up until the very last minute. Even the most well-intended college student is going to run up against practical barriers to registering and voting that the most experienced and active citizen would find daunting.

So what do we do? There are obviously structural answers to these challenges; we cannot rely on individual motivation to fix this problem alone. But given the immediacy of the election, my organization, IGNITE, is working to maximize the Gen Z vote given the broken rules that are in place. IGNITE is an expert on motivating Gen Z women to vote. Case in point: 90 percent of our young women voted in 2018. We do this via sustained, year-round programming that helps young women connect the issues they already care about with the role of legislators making policy decisions about those issues; we teach them to register themselves, then ask them to register and mobilize their peers and communities (which they do at 3x the rate of their peers). IGNITE has been successful in our work, and we are poised to leverage the organizing power of IGNITE women on college campuses to IGNITE the Vote of college students across America.

Why do we care? Perhaps the largest reason is that voting is a gateway drug for itself: if a young person votes in two consecutive elections they become a lifetime voter. Based on the 2018 Gen Z vote totals, we have an opportunity to create a generation that votes at high rates for the rest of their lives. Whether or not this happens is up to us.

Anne Moses is the president and founder of IGNITE. She has more than 25 years' experience in social justice and political organizations across the non-profit, political, and academic sectors with a focus on women and girls. In 2010, Anne founded IGNITE, a nationally recognized 501c3 that is building a movement of women who are ready and eager to become the next generation of political leaders.

Published on May 13, 2020