Allen: Young People Came Out to Vote in Large Numbers This Past Election. Here Are Some Ways to Keep that Civic Engagement Going


It can be difficult to see the bright spots in this challenging year, but for those of us who work to engage college students in civic life, it has been heartening to see the explosion of activism and informed dialogue around the elections, public health and racial justice. Amid pandemic lockdowns and social distancing, these young activists have been adept at mobilizing through digital platforms, tapping social media, online databases and video conferencing to inform their peers on key issues, get out the vote and have their concerns heard by elected officials and community leaders.

According to a study from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, more students are becoming actively engaged in civic issues online. Majorities report gathering election information on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat and finding satisfaction in creating content that informs and motivates others.

These efforts are having an impact and offer promise that young people will turn out in vast numbers for the issues that affect their generation. Early estimates suggest that at least 50 percent and as much as 56 percent of eligible voters between ages 18 and 29 cast ballots this year, compared with 42 percent to 44 percent in 2016. Survey data indicate a whopping 83 percent of youth are confident their generation has the power to create change in this country. As a result of the pandemic, nearly 8 in 10 recognize that their elected officials hold significant power to impact people’s day-to-day lives. These sentiments signal the importance of helping this generation stay informed and connect frequently with key decisionmakers, as the hard work of pursuing change is yet to come.

How do we support and sustain these efforts? How do we motivate students to continue their momentum and make their voices heard by the lawmakers they helped to elect — whose decisions about the nation’s fiscal future will impact generations to come?

Students and faculty advisers from more than 40 colleges and universities across the country have developed creative, effective digital strategies in amplifying conversations around fiscal policy this fall as part of the annual Up to Us Campus Competition.

We have some advice for those working in education to build on this momentum:

  • Faculty and staff who are working directly with students should take time to discuss and help students research and educate themselves on policy issues and how they impact them personally and our country more broadly. For example, this Guide to Fiscal Issues explains fiscal policy and how decisions made by elected officials now will have significant impacts on their generation, now and for years to come.
  • Encourage students to identify their local elected officials and reach out via email to introduce themselves and the issues that are important to them. If a large group of constituents voices similar concerns, it is likely an elected official will take notice (and action). This Get Heard Guide has tips for identifying and starting a meaningful dialogue with local and national elected officials.
  • Urge students to find and attend virtual town halls hosted by elected officials. Many public convenings are being streamed online, with opportunities for the public to speak in open session. Students can check with their local government agencies for specifics and sign up to participate.
  • Share opportunities to join national movements of like-minded people advocating for issues that students are passionate about. No matter what issues students may want to pursue, there are organizations and events that provide outlets for their advocacy. Through IssueVoter, for example, students can get alerts on legislation related to issues they care about and, using links on the site, vote to support or oppose the measure. Issue Voter then sends a message to the user’s elected officials sharing their view. It’s always a good idea to have students start local, since that is where individual voices can have the most impact. Encourage students to work to build coalitions and partnerships to find people who are just as passionate as they are about an issue and share their vision of success with them.

The COVID-19 crisis has sidelined many of efforts to connect with each other and complicated plans for activities and outreach to move issues forward. But this new reality has also motivated more effective use of digital platforms to build civic movements even while we work with each other at a distance. As the successful campaigns to get young people engaged in this election have demonstrated, there’s a great deal of opportunity — and hope — for building the youth movement to elevate and solve the many pressing issues we face. We all need to continue to support this generation to have an even greater impact.

Hilary Allen works with students and faculty across the country as program manager of the Up to Us Competition at Net Impact, a global community of emerging leaders who use their skills and careers to drive transformational social and environmental change. Up to Us is a national, nonpartisan campus-based initiative that galvanizes college students to become more civically engaged through conversations around the nation’s fiscal and economic challenges. 

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