Why we must engage the youth vote

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The stakes are higher than ever before. Nationwide, youths are lobbying. Youths are marching. Youths are voting — but not enough.

While most members of Generation Z were too young to vote in the 2016 general election, this single voting bloc now constitutes 10% of the total electorate, compared to only 3% in 2016. This means that Gen Z alone has more than three times more voting power now than it did just four years ago.

Because most university students fall within this voting bloc, student civic engagement on campus is crucial. Between 2014 and 2018, UC Berkeley student voting rates jumped 27.7 percentage points, from 19.1% to 46.8%. However, while students in different graduation classes voted at similar rates, different academic majors voted at drastically different rates.

While history majors had an average voting rate of about 57.4% — higher than the school’s average — those pursuing engineering or mathematics degrees only voted at a rate of about 30%, far less. Over time, this difference has helped student civic engagement organizations target academic groups with historically low voter turnout rates — with events such as voter registration drives for engineering clubs and lessons about voting for new students as part of Golden Bear Orientation.

Other efforts have included panels with politicians, civic engagement concerts, ballot drop boxes, campuswide communications and efforts to expand and institutionalize voter education through the formation of recognized bodies, such as the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Civic and Voter Empowerment Advisory Board.

Last semester, all student organizations, from Cal Berkeley Democrats to the campus surfing club, were invited to join the Voting Project, an initiative meant to expand civic engagement efforts beyond the realm of political and advocacy organizations. More recently, our campus has seen new civic engagement initiatives from identity-based organizations such as the UC Berkeley Muslim Student Association and the Middle Eastern, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian Coalition, as well as the South Asian community.

To better mobilize UC Berkeley voters, it’s important that all student organizations — not just political ones — actively engage their members before an election by allocating time to help members register to vote or by distributing election resources. Our democracy doesn’t differentiate between a student who is in an advocacy club and another who is not, so it’s important that we all are civically engaged.

More broadly, when thinking about mobilizing the youth vote, it’s important to keep in mind that Gen Zers and Millennials are far more racially and ethnically diverse than any other voting bloc in U.S. history — and Gen Z, in particular, is the most diverse bloc in this upcoming election. Of the Gen Z voting bloc, 22% is Hispanic and 14% is Black. This is compared to voters in the baby boomer bloc, which is only 9% Hispanic and 11% Black. Additionally, in 2019, more than half of the country’s population under the age of 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority. As soon as they turn 18 years old, these individuals will join the most diverse voting bloc in U.S. history.

Engaging a populous, diverse voting bloc in the upcoming election is especially important given that legislation affects identity groups in different ways. Just last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported findings that showed that Black women were 3.3 times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related complication than white women were, despite most of the deaths being preventable. Similarly, Black and Latinx individuals facing drug or weapon charges are more likely to be convicted and incarcerated — and given longer sentences — than white individuals facing similar charges are.

This must change. We need a diverse group of voters to elect a diverse group of individuals who will understand the true needs of their constituents and carry out the same future their voters envision. We need these leaders to not only represent us but be genuinely representative of us.

Right now, the power of the youth vote to influence change and highlight the voices of groups that have been silenced in the past is stronger than ever before — and will only get stronger as time goes on.

To California youth voters: You may not believe it, but your vote does matter, and down-ballot races — all races that aren’t the race for president — are where you can make your voice heard.

On top of statewide propositions, state-level elected officials and city of Berkeley ballot measures, you will be voting for members of the Alameda County Water District, the East Bay Regional Park District board, the AC Transit board of directors and the Alameda County Superior Court.

So, if you care about having safe drinking water in your residence, if you care about the outdoor spaces you spend time in, if you care about having a reliable transportation system for grocery runs or getting to class in the morning or if you care about the way that individuals are treated in our justice system, make sure your voice is heard in this upcoming election. Don’t just vote for president. Vote the whole ballot.

The youth vote matters. Your vote matters. Go Bears and, please, go vote.

Srija Manchkanti (she/her) is a UC Berkeley senior and Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere ambassador serving on the Student Advisory Committee to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.