They call themselves the “mass shootings generation,” their perspective shaped by deadly rampages at Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla. They sound the alarm about the devastation caused by climate change. They fear the threats to LGBTQ rights and now the ramifications of the loss of a constitutional right to abortion.
They are Generation Z — commonly defined as those born between 1997 and 2012 — and they’re outspoken and politically active, known for viral stunts, organizing mass protests and trolling extremist politicians online.
But the looming question with just a month until the midterm elections that will decide control of Congress and the fate of President Biden’s agenda: Will they vote in numbers to make a difference?
Historically, young Americans turn out to vote at significantly lower rates than their parents and grandparents. Only 44 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 participated in the 2016 election, an unenthusiastic turnout compared with the 72 percent of voters 65 and older who showed up to vote that year. The trend has picked up since — 53 percent of young voters participated in the 2020 election, the most-recent presidential election year.
Per a Washington Post-ABC News poll published Sept. 25, only 49 percent of young Americans — those between the ages of 19 and 29 — said they are “absolutely certain to vote” in the November midterms, compared with 63 percent of those 30-64 and 84 percent of those 65 and older. And an NPR/Marist poll published on Oct. 6 found that those aged 18-29 are the least likely to vote in November.
Still, some leading voting rights groups are optimistic that Gen Z will vote in droves this year — if only because the pressure has been put on young voters as national and state lawmakers target rights they hold dearest, including protections to the LGBTQ community, abortion rights and gun control.
“Voting is habit forming, and, right now, no matter how negatively people may feel, they’re not ready to give up on voting, because the consequences are so clear and stark,” said Andy Bernstein, executive director of HeadCount, a nonpartisan organization that promotes voting through engagement with artists.
Stephanie Young, executive director of voting access group When We All Vote, said Gen Z voters appear to be more civically engaged than those who came before them because they’re seeing firsthand how “government works because of the pandemic … [and] all that we’ve experienced over the last couple of years.”
“They can see their power when it comes to voting and voting people into office that are aligned with them,” Young said.
Even President Biden has recognized the generation’s energy and potential.
“One of my reasons for optimism is the young people in this country, [they are] the least prejudiced, most volunteering, least — How can I say it? — Least likely to find blame and most likely to get engaged,” Biden said at a recent White House event.
Some members of this generation are working to harness their peers’ voting powers. Voters of Tomorrow, a Gen Z-run organization working to get out the youth vote, gathered more than 100 activists on a Friday night in Philadelphia in August. The youngest were 13 — too young to vote. They came from around the country to talk strategy about how they could get their peers to vote.
The activists connected over their shared goal of not letting the older generations define the next election.
Among those at the conference was Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., who warned that CEOs and extremist politicians want his generation to feel as if voting is purposeless, to maintain the status quo.
“They want us to feel that way, they want us to be ‘doomers,’ they want us to see what’s happening and look away,” Kasky said. “They all want us to give up, right?”
The Gen Z “doom” that Kasky spoke about is reflected in the numbers. A poll published in early August by the Economist and YouGov found that 61 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 think the country is “on the wrong track.”
“Unfortunately,” Kasky told his fellow activists, “We still have to do the work.”
Gen Z’s civic engagement is visible, loud, and viral, HeadCount’s Bernstein said. More young people, he said, are protesting, picking up their phone and blasting their representatives on Twitter or running for office themselves.
“The civic engagement aspect is actually really healthy,” he said.
Will Larkins, 17, a senior at Winter Park High School in Florida is an example of this. Larkins went viral in April for educating classmates about the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and then led walkouts at their school protesting a measure passed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that has come to be known as the “Don’t Say Gay’ bill.
Larkins, who joined peers in Philadelphia, said more than 500 students joined the walkout after they and other LGBTQ peers let their classmates know how the Republican measure would impact their community.
And that sparked an “instantaneous shift in culture at my school,” they said, noting that they helped register 200 of his classmates to vote.
Republicans, Larkins said, “definitely picked the wrong crowd to mess with.”
And while Larkins is still too young to vote — and much too young to run for office — fellow Floridian Maxwell Alejandro Frost is an example of a young, grass roots organizer who’s taking charge after being disappointed by previous generations.
At 25, Frost became the first member of Gen Z to win a congressional primary. He is favored to win the general election for Florida’s heavily Democratic 10th Congressional District, which means Frost is likely to be one of the youngest members of Congress — and one of the first members of Gen Z to roam its halls as a lawmaker.
Speaking by phone days after his victory in the Florida primary, Frost noted that Voters of Tomorrow was among the first national organizations that backed his political campaign, lending it legitimacy. The urgency of Gen Z’s priorities, he said, can be felt through the dedication they put to organizations like this, where they feel like they can enact change even without having power.
Frost would know — He’s been working in politics since he was 15, protesting gun violence after the deadly mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Before running for office, he served as March for Our Lives’ national organizing director.
“We are [ticked] off that we don’t live in the world that we deserve,” Frost said. “People like to say young people are stubborn so, yeah, sure, Generation Z is stubborn about a better world. We know that we have to get involved and make our voices heard to build that world.”
A fellow Gen Z member, Republican Karoline Leavitt, won her New Hampshire primary a few weeks after Frost and will face incumbent Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) in the general election for a seat that Republicans see as one of their best opportunities to flip in their bid to regain the House majority.
Like Frost, Leavitt — who worked as an aide for former president Donald Trump — has leaned into her Gen Z identity while campaigning.
“They said I was too young, we could never raise the money to compete, and that we could never beat a former Republican nominee,” Leavitt said in her victory speech in September after she beat Republican Matt Mowers, who ran against Pappas in 2020 but lost by five percentage points.
At the Philadelphia conference, Chi Ossé, a 24-year-old member of the New York City Council and one of the youngest elected officials in the country, said it feels like Gen Z is more politically engaged than previous generations partly because of the internet, but also because of the “chaos” that was growing up in the country “over the past two decades.”
“I wouldn’t call it anger,” he said, of what motivates members of Gen Z to be politically active, “I would call it urgency to act on the issues that are very pressing right now. We are so tired of incrementalism.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.