Thwarting a red wave, Generation Z emerges as a powerful voting power

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Motivated by concerns about climate change, public education, and, to a lesser extent, access to abortion, 21-year-old Ava Alvarez made sure to vote in the 2022 midterm elections.

“I don’t think it’s right to complain about something if you don’t get out to vote,” says the Virginia college student, who describes herself as a liberal Democrat. “I also believe that every vote counts.”

Alvarez is among the millions of America’s youngest voters who voted in near-record numbers during the 2022 midterm elections, fracturing the expected “red wave” that many expected would give Republicans a solid majority in Congress. The strong showing indicates that Generation Z is a rising political force.

“I think the 2022 midterms are a wake-up call for Republicans to be more connected to young people,” says Eric Miller, a 20-year-old Virginia college student who identifies as a Republican and says he voted for Donald Trump in 2020.

Midterm elections take place in the middle of the president’s four-year term. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives – where members serve two-year terms – and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate were up for grab in 2022.

Women cheer during the ‘Reproductive Freedom for All’ Election Night Gala in Detroit, Michigan, November 8, 2022.

Historically, the president’s political party always loses seats in Congress with the opposition party traditionally making significant gains. Republicans have gained a majority in the House of Representatives this election cycle, but only by a handful of seats, while Democrats have retained a slim majority in the Senate.

“I think the data will prove that young voters were very important in many of these swing states and some of these elections,” says John Wehbe, associate professor of media innovation and technology at Northeastern University.

Early figures from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) show that 27% of people ages 18 to 29 cast ballots on November 8, the second-highest turnout for midterm youth in 30 years. (The highest was in 2018).

“It’s reproductive rights, climate change, immigration, racial justice, gender justice,” Wehbe says, listing the issues that got young people to vote.

Young evangelicals aren’t that different from their more liberal peers, according to a recent survey.

“They are aware of diversity and equality, more than the older generations, and therefore, they are going to take these things very seriously and listen to people who are talking about these things, like the AOC [New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] or [Vermont Sen.] Bernie Sanders,” says Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, a partner on the study. “They are, I think, arguably cosmopolitan when it comes to their political views.”

A young voter at a campaign party for Georgia Republican candidate for US Senate Herschel Walker at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, November 8, 2022.

A young voter at a campaign party for Georgia Republican candidate for US Senate Herschel Walker at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, November 8, 2022.

Wehbe says Gen Z does not get his news from traditional sources like newspapers, but gets second-hand or filtered news from social media, which has resulted in young voters forming opinions about politics at a much greater rate than previous generations.

“I wouldn’t say that’s at all surprising because everyone is just on their phones all the time on social media,” says Alvarez, who said she has voted in every election since reaching voting age. “It makes sense that they would get all their information on TikTok or maybe if they see a political post they will still look at the comments and everyone has an opinion and comments and maybe they will form opinions based on that.”

CIRCLE’s early analysis shows that youth voter turnout may have netted key wins for Democrats in some battleground states, but that doesn’t mean either political party can take the youth vote for granted.

“Younger voters are likely to be less affiliated with a particular party and may vote on an issue more frequently,” Wehbe says. “I think part of what the digital world does is it creates fewer strong connections to particular parties or causes and emphasizes the new or emerging social issue.”

Ava Alvarez, a 21-year-old college student from Virginia, says she votes in every election.  (Photo courtesy of Ava Alvarez)

Ava Alvarez, a 21-year-old college student from Virginia, says she votes in every election. (Photo courtesy of Ava Alvarez)

This appears to apply to young voters across the political spectrum, according to the results of the Young Evangelicals survey.

“They’re less religious to the Republican Party, I think, than the older generations, and we also see that they listen to Fox News and, let’s say, CNN at about the same rate,” Singer says. “They’re listening to Joe Biden and they’re listening to Elon Musk, which isn’t much of a surprise given that Gen Z is more comfortable drawing inspiration from a variety of sources than they are to stick to the standards of certain institutions.”

Miller, a young Republican voter, says his generation is less interested in partisan bickering and more concerned with finding common ground.

“We’re doing more research. We’re not just watching, maybe, Fox News, and listening to the other side, what they’re trying to say,” Miller says. “I think the center is where everything is key. Obviously, I don’t think the two extremes will ever align in any time frame. But I think we can get to moderate Democrats, even liberals – but maybe not just progressive liberals – but I definitely see a way forward.”

The results of the survey of young evangelicals seem to confirm the increasing openness on the part of Gen Z conservatives.

“Young evangelicals are frankly more peaceful with others than older generations are. Our study found, for example, that they are more likely to engage with people of different faiths than their religious leaders encourage them to be,” says Singer. There is certainly more enthusiasm about diversity and pluralism and I think, for that reason, they are more likely to enjoy the perspectives of those with whom their parents disagree.”

Signs of youthful enthusiasm for voters were evident before Election Day. CIRCLE found that youth voter registration is up compared to 2018, particularly in places where abortion-related issues were on the ballot, or where voters recently voted on abortion-related measures.

“My concern is that, because we see so much political hardship, whether it’s reproductive rights or other things, they become pessimistic or disengaged,” Wehbe says. “I think one of the most important things here is that they see the political system that we have in our democracy as an important lever for social change, not as something that is just a dead end.”

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