Gen Z & voting: Mayor Turner on young people shaping elections
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By Payton Wilson

This is the fourth of several Defender Network articles that are part of Solutions Journalism Network’s Advancing Democracy initiative. Solutions Journalism provides readers with research on solutions to current problems, where they are being enacted, the challenges and opportunities those solutions provide and how readers can be part of those solutions. The initiative calls on participating media outlets to produce articles focused on issues that are threats to U.S. democracy and provide readers with initiatives aimed at “advancing” democracy. 

A new generation of Americans is preparing to head to the polls – Generation Z.  Born after 1996, most members of this generation are not yet old enough to vote, but as the oldest among them turn 23 this year, about 8 million Gen-Zers will have turned 18 between the 2020 elections and 2022 midterm elections. And their political clout will continue to grow steadily in the coming years, as more and more of them reach voting age.

Unlike millennials – who came of age during the Great Recession – this new generation was in line to inherit a strong economy with record-low unemployment. That has all changed now as COVID-19 has reshaped the country’s social, political and economic landscape. That uncertain future has placed voting low on the priority list of some Gen-Zers.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes to see more young people at the polls. He talked exclusively with the Defender about Gen Z and voting.

Defender: Why do you think voting isn’t a huge priority for some teens and young adults?

Mayor Sylvester Turner: I think people are still coming into their own. Number one, in most cases they will be voting for the first time. And it takes time to fully take into account how voting and elections impact people’s lives. They will certainly come to find that elections have consequences and who you vote for is highly important and that your vote is your voice. If you don’t like something then you have to exercise the right to vote. If you do like something and you want to preserve it, then you do actually have to exercise your right to vote. So your vote is your voice. I’m optimistic because we’re seeing more and more young people voting at an early age. And certainly in larger percentages than when I was coming up.

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Defender: As the mayor of a city as large as Houston, what’s your plan to get more of Gen Z involved in local elections?

Turner: I go to high school campuses and talk about the right to vote. I go to college campuses. In the last major election cycle, I did this challenge among Texas Southern, University of Houston and Rice, giving out awards for who got more people out to vote, especially during early voting. I try through my own social media to interact with people as much as possible. I recognize that for most Americans, they get very little of their news from the major television stations, so you have to go to where they are. And we try to do that. We try to be innovative.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Defender: A lot of political discussion isn’t marketed toward younger audiences. It oftentimes feels forced. What do you think politicians can do to effectively appeal to young voters?

Turner: Be authentic. When you’re being “the politician showing up just at election time,” they tune off to that. But people can judge sincerity. They can judge whether you are authentic or not, whether you’re talking a language that they can understand, or you’re talking a message that they can that can relate to, or talking about things that directly impact their lives. So that’s important. And people want to feel like they know where you are coming from. All of that’s critically important. That’s why, even as an elected official, I consciously made a decision to continue to live in a home in Acres Home. Because no one then has tell me about the life of people coming through neighborhoods like Acres Home. I grew up there, I was born in there, and I still live there to this very day. And in many ways, it makes a difference. So you just have to talk the language that people understand, and you have to have a good sense of where people are coming from, what their life experiences are, what’s real to them. And as they say, you’ve just gotta be 100 with them.

Defender: What would you like to leave young eligible and soon-to-be eligible voters with?

Turner: Oftentimes, young people will hear that you are the leaders for tomorrow. Forget that, you’re leading right now. You don’t have to be 30, 50, 70 years old to lead. Quite frankly, you can be 14 and be a leader. You can be 18 and be a leader. You can be 25 and be a leader. And in many ways, it won’t be that older generation that will save us or move us forward. It will be that younger generation that will push us and be our conscious. So you claim your position.

They are one of history’s most racially and ethnically diverse generations and came of age in an era of increased digital communication through smartphones and social media, which is reflected in their political organizing.

How to get young voters out

In the 2018 midterm elections, a record-high 31% of youth voters turned out. As the youth vote becomes increasingly important to competitive races, politicians are looking at ways to get young voters out.

According to a study from Tufts’ University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, galvanizing young people through social media on policies that matter to them, along with better lessons in civic engagement, is what will drive new voters to the polls.

Their study also found:

  • The pandemic is hitting home: 82% percent of Gen Zers say the COVID-19 pandemic has made them realize how political leaders’ decisions impact their everyday lives. 
  • Activism leads to voting: Young people who identify themselves as both conservative and liberal consider themselves activists — and recent studies show that activism makes them more likely to vote. 
  • College is a primary resource for voter engagement: 63% of students aged 18-21 typically learn about civic processes while attending college — whether from voter registration drives happening on campus or fellow students. 
  • Only 33% of 18-23 year olds are able to attend college full-time, which means there is a huge population of eligible young voters who historically have not had as much access to information and resources that will help them vote.