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Gen Z: Your voting rights depend on your state legislatures

By Jacob Winch

Jacob Winch
Jacob Winch. Photo courtesy American Forum.

The 2020 election set a lot of records, including for Gen Z participation. Nearly 160 million Americans, almost two-thirds of the estimated eligible voter age population, cast their ballots for their candidate of choice—an increase of more than five percent from 2016’s election.

Any improvement in voting participation is a positive change, but what is particularly remarkable about the 2020 election turnout is how many more young people came out, in various ways, to make their voices heard. More than 25 million 18 to 29 year-olds appear to have voted. That is a record 52 to 55% of eligible young voters, showing an increase of about 10% from the estimated 42 to 44% who voted in 2016.

Traditionally, older Americans vote at higher rates than younger Americans; in 2016, for example, more than 70% of citizens 65 years and older voted. Likewise, it is seen as traditional that young people vote the least out of any age block. But there is another tradition in American electoral politics that deserves deeper recognition—the consistent attempts to suppress, disenfranchise, and otherwise reduce the voting rates of particular subsets of U.S. citizens.

Following in this tradition, a number of state legislatures (43 so far) around the country have begun pushing bills to actively limit voter participation in the aftermath of the 2020 election. These restrictive bills are primarily focused on limiting access to mail-in voting, imposing stricter voter ID requirements, limiting successful pro-voter registration policies, and enabling more aggressive voter poll purges. All of these proposed changes are designed to deter young people and minorities from voting (though they will in effect burden every voter), and they are inextricably tied to the many unfounded and outright dangerous allegations of fraud that aimed to overthrow the will of the voters this past winter—the same anti-democratic conspiracy theories that led to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The Elections Clause (Article I, Section 4) of the Constitution provides the State Legislatures this power—specifically to prescribe the “Times, Places, and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives”—but the nature of our democratic republic also provides us, the citizens, with the power to elect those state level representatives.

Millions of young people came out in 2020—as volunteers, poll workers, notary publics, and first-time voters—to prove to the doubters and nay-sayers who constantly denigrate today’s youth that we care about the fate of our country and its people and are committed to civic engagement. Now those nay-sayers want to leave no room for doubt; they want to make sure we cannot participate without jumping through restrictive hoops that do nothing positive for election security.

If you are a younger voter and you really care, you need to pay attention to what’s going on in your state legislatures. Elections are neither a one-off event nor an exclusively federal battle. This same fight over who has the necessary access to cast their vote and secure federal representation—a fight that has defined American history—will continue for the rest of our lives, and the main battleground will be within the walls of these state legislatures which are currently debating the rules to be set for future elections in 2022 and 2024.

Gen-Z may have the least political experience out of all the age-groups in America, but we have the greatest potential to transfer our strong and evolving political will into real systemic change. The issues that matter to us most, from climate change to racial justice, require our direct and consistent input in order to create lasting solutions. Every vote matters, but your vote matters most in elections at the state and local level that have less active participants, especially since it is those elected officials who have the power to decide the rules for our future elections of federal representatives.

Jacob Winch, a Gen Z voter, is a recent graduate of Tulane University. He currently lives in New Orleans. Credit to American Forum for sharing this article.

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