Amidst continuing tabulation of absentee and mail-in-ballots, legal threats and challenges, and a prolonged battle for the Presidency, one thing is clear: young people turned out in historic numbers to vote in the 2020 election. Political leaders have an opportunity to sustain this energy by reinforcing the strength of our democratic institutions in the coming weeks and months. If we fail to do so, we will lose the important gains we’ve made in building youth mobilisation – and risk significant declines in the youth vote for years to come.

Indeed, while young people turned out for this election, their continued engagement is not guaranteed. To drive sustained civic engagement in the future, state officials must count every vote cast in this election, and leaders across the political spectrum must stand behind the process and accept the results. Attempts to delegitimise the democratic process only drive more people away from participating in it, and for a generation who is already sceptical and distrustful of institutions, this break could cause long-term damage. In many ways, the future of our democracy depends on the coming weeks.

Roughly 37 percent of all Americans are Millennials or younger, and Millennials and Generation Z combined make up the largest voting bloc in the country. They are also the most racially diverse generation in the United States, marking a stark difference from their older, whiter, counterparts. Consequently, Millennials and Gen Zers prioritise issues of racial injustice much higher than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. 71 percent of all young Americans believe the government should do more to address systemic racism. For many, Black Lives Matter activism has directly led to an electoral engagement. Many of the young people who participated in the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing indicated that they intended to vote in the 2020 elections – and unofficial returns suggest they followed through. 

Since 2016, 15 million 18-29 year olds registered to vote – a staggering number when one considers that only 19 million young people voted in total in the 2016 election. The size and enthusiasm of this generation have led to some early milestones in 2020: 10 million young people voted early or absentee, and with states still reporting final results, the total number is likely to rise significantly. This turnout is due to high enthusiasm, but also to high engagement from the local and community-based groups that began connecting with these voters as early as 2016.

The role of these organisations in turning out young voters has been particularly significant during non-election years because it has provided pathways for continued communication with an important voting bloc. Local and national groups like the Alliance for Youth Action on the left or Turning Point USA on the right were able to provide information, networking, and civic engagement opportunities for young people in off-cycle years, and that type of infrastructure-building creates trust among a generation of voters who are traditionally sceptical of politicians and institutions.

Instead of young people being ignored until election time, like an ATM for votes, these organisations listened to what young people cared about, and engaged authentically with them around achieving it. The young people in these networks were primed and educated on the power of their voice, and of their votes. And because these groups engaged youth well ahead of the election, they were able to adapt to unexpected challenges to voter mobilisation – like the Covid-19 crisis.

Covid-19 and necessary social distancing measures meant that traditional youth engagement opportunities, like campus events or in-person canvassing, became impossible. Because these NGOs had already invested the time and resources to build relationships with young people well before the pandemic struck, they were able to leverage this infrastructure and drive young voters to the polls.

Now that young people have participated in historic numbers, it is on our state and federal leaders to do their part. The risk in this moment is no longer that young people will not turn out — it is that they will not do it again. A stable democracy is one in which every vote is counted. Right now, states are doing just that: counting every single vote to ensure an accurate tally. However, the rhetoric around which votes should count and which ones should not, is undermining a pillar of the institution of democracy. The added uncertainty around possible ballots lost in the mail, and the expectation of litigation around results no matter the outcome, further damages the fragile trust established with young people around how the system works.

Unfortunately, Millennials are no stranger to the failure of institutions, having lived through the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 2008 recession, a pervasive student debt crisis, and now a global pandemic. Today, they are at risk of believing our election system is broken. We cannot afford to lose the faith we have built around our democratic institutions. 

The trends are clear: more young people are registering to vote, encouraging their peers to vote, and casting a ballot themselves. They’re also running for office at historic levels – Millennial Action Project tracked a 266 percent increase in Millennial candidates for Congress in 2020 compared to 2018, and at least 16 percent of Congress will be represented by young elected officials in 2021.

In order to sustain this high level of engagement and build continued youth mobilisation, the way we handle the next few days is critical. It’s more than just the winners and losers of a single election – it’s about how we reinforce the very idea of democracy and empower the next generation of young leaders to responsibly steward that precious idea.


Related articles:
The dangers for democracy from America’s populist drift, by Vivien A. Schmidt.
Trump is gone and Trumpism is here to stay, by Rick Smith.
Time for Democrats to join forces across the Atlantic, by Knut Dethlefsen.
Trumpism is here to stay, by Dimitris Tsarouhas.
Inclusive nationalism wins in America, by John Halpin.
The cultural politics defining the 2020 election, by Michael Kennedy. Elections in the United States: their meaning and impact on Latin America, by José Moreno Santos.