Georgia’s Youth Became A Political Force. Will it Last?
After record-high voter turnout in 2018 and 2020, Georgia’s youth — and whether they show up this time — could be decisive in a close Senate race
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Updated, Nov. 9
The Senate race in Georgia between Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker will be decided by a Dec. 6 runoff election after both candidates failed to claim at least 50% of votes. Warnock secured 49.42% while Walker garnered 48.52%. Exit polls showed 63% of young Georgia voters casting their ballots for Democrats and 34% going for Republican candidates. For the second election in a row, the Georgia race could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Young voters in Georgia have a reputation to maintain this election season, but 20-year-old Alex Ames is worried.
In both 2018 and 2020, uncharacteristically high voter turnout among young people — a bloc whose election-day apathy has long been well documented — delivered unmistakable political power. Just two years ago, young voters, and Black youth in particular, were credited with delivering a victory to President Joe Biden, the first Democrat to win the state in nearly three decades. Then, in a runoff race in early 2021, they were instrumental in handing Democrats an unexpected Senate majority.
Can they do it again?
Ames, an activist and a junior at Georgia Institute of Technology, has spent the fall leading a workforce of high school and college students who’ve reached out to thousands of friends, classmates and neighbors urging them to vote. Her group, the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, is one in a crowded field of nonprofits whose get-out-the-vote efforts have led to a surge in youth participation in the last several election cycles.
Nationally and in Georgia, registration among those 18 to 24 is up slightly from the midterms in 2018, the last cycle without the higher turnout generally brought by a presidential election. The national youth voter registration is up 6% over 2018 including in the key battleground states of Arizona, Nevada and Michigan — where voter registration overall has surged by 38%.
Registering new voters is one thing, Ames said, but getting them to cast their ballots early or show up on election day is a hurdle in itself. Georgia’s youngest voters skew heavily Democratic, putting them in sharp contrast to older generations in a state that’s long been a Republican stronghold.
Pessimistic about the energy levels she’s observed on the ground, Ames said that several factors — including stricter new voting rules and a Democratic party that’s failed to deliver tangible results — have made it more difficult to mobilize young people this year. Unlike nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts, her coalition seeks to mobilize students who support liberal causes including abortion rights, gun control, LGBTQ rights and school funding.
“Certain sections of the Democratic Party have failed to get up to the task of proving to voters that they are worthwhile,” said Ames, the group’s organizing director. “The Democratic Party in the past two years had a very serious opportunity handed to it by voters and volunteers like me who sacrificed literally 70 hours a week working to elect a future where we not only survive, but thrive. And, largely, we got very little out of that.”
Whether they show up could be decisive. Experts say that youth voter turnout in Georgia remains instrumental to this year’s election outcomes,, especially in a tight Senate race between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker. The race was a toss-up in a Marist College poll released last week. Among poll respondents 18 to 29, a meager 18% said they’re definitely voting. Among millennials and Gen Z respondents, 58% said they planned to vote for Warnock compared with 33% who supported Walker.
Among Senate races nationally, the highly watched Georgia contest is where youth voters are likely to have the most significant impact, according to an analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement, a think tank at Tufts University. That power comes in part from demographics, with Georgia youth more racially diverse and liberal than their elders.
While 28% of young people voted in the 2018 midterms nationally, some 34% showed up in Georgia. Two years later, they overwhelmingly supported Warnock and Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff. And while 63% of all Georgia voters 18 to 29 supported Warnock in the runoffs, 91% of Black youth supported the Baptist pastor.
Because Georgia youth are predominantly liberal and “have pretty different views from the rest of the population when it comes to politics,” their high turnout has made them “a force to be reckoned with in the state,” said Ruby Belle Booth, an elections coordinator at the Tufts research center known as CIRCLE.
“This is especially true of Black youth, who have an even wider favoring for Democratic candidates,” she said. “Especially when Black young people show up in Georgia, it can cause pretty big shifts in elections. We saw that in the runoffs in 2021.”
That could spell trouble for Walker, who has the unwavering support of former President Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The former football star made opposition to abortion central to his campaign but has faced accusations by multiple women who claim he pressured and paid for them to terminate their pregnancies.
In a national survey of 2,200 students and National Society of High School Scholars alumni, racial equity, abortion rules and the economy ranked among the top issues. Other polls have similarly placed the economy, and abortion to a lesser extent, among top issues for voters of all ages.
“I’ve been screaming this from the rooftops and nobody’s been listening, but young people, their top issue is the same as older folks,” Booth said. “There’s a lot of treatment of young people as this weird creature who has to be pandered to in a very specific way, but in reality they have a lot of the same concerns and want people who are addressing those concerns in a way that’s also geared toward them.”
New voter rules in Georgia could also serve to discourage youth turnout, including a shorter window to apply for absentee ballots — an important voting method for college students. Among those who already took advantage of early voting is 18-year-old Kameron Hayes, who lives in Atlanta but attends a boarding school in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Racial justice is his top issue, he said, and he’s most attracted to candidates willing to work across the aisle who want “to take the heat and fire out of politics and make it so the average American can understand what’s going on and actually not lose their mind while they’re watching CNN or Fox News.”
Voting procedures and voter registration has been particularly fraught in Georgia since 2020 when the state became one of the places where Trump sought to overturn his defeat by pressuring state officials and poll workers.
“I really do hope that we move beyond the partisan issues of absentee voting and early voting and look at it for its value because it allows people like me to vote: College students, people who serve in the military, people who work jobs that don’t give them time off to vote,” Hayes said.
Noelia Nava, the Georgia deputy state coordinator at the Campus Vote Project, has been working this fall to improve voter turnout on college campuses. The recent Georgia State University graduate said “a feeling of hopelessness” is a recurring sentiment among young people, but she tries to remind them “that our system may not be perfect but it is the system that we have.”
As the daughter of undocumented immigrants, she’s experienced that disappointment firsthand. Biden made immigration reform central to his presidential campaign but has largely failed to live up to his promises, she said.
“There’s been multiple times where I have feared that my mom or dad might be deported every time they step out of the house and that is something that is very scary and I’m not the only one who goes through that,” she said. “I do think that Latino voters, specifically Latino youth, should come out and vote for whoever we believe is best to make immigration reform happen.”
To capture the attention of young people, Democrats need to stand for more than being the opposition party to Trump, Booth said. While Walker’s Senate campaign has been defined by scandals and wild statements, the issues motivating young people are “less ‘Oh these people are crazy,’ because their introduction to politics was Donald Trump their introduction was insane.”
Instead, young voters want candidates to demonstrate how they’ll improve their lives, Booth said. They’re falling short.
“It’s hard for young voters — especially if they voted for the first time in 2020 and they were told they were powerful, they broke records — to look around and be like, ‘OK, the child tax credit was pretty nice and we got some cool stuff out of that,’ but I’m not seeing it with my eyes,” Booth said. “ ‘I’m not feeling it. I don’t feel powerful.’ ”
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