This story originally published online at Carolina Public Press.

Luis Valdivia-Diego, 19, a rising sophomore from Angier, is studying public policy and economy at UNC Chapel Hill. He is a registered, first-time voter who did not vote in the previous election. Valdivia-Diego said he was wrestling with the course load during his first semester at college.

“I was an hour away from home and I felt like I didn’t have a method for voting in my county,” Valdivia-Diego said. He said he didn’t know he could submit an absentee ballot or register to vote in Orange County. 

“I guess it was also just about the nervousness of asking for help,” he said. 

Valdivia-Diego is a first generation Latino American. “I’m treading the water firsthand with voting, and my immigrant family did not get to participate in that,” he said. 

He is interested and invested in political issues and believes in the right to vote but did not grow up learning about voting, nor did he have the access to resources to learn how to navigate the process, he said. 

“I had to learn all these things, like getting a driver’s license or insurance, by myself, and these weren’t things that I, like many gifted families that are legal here, got the chance to learn from my parents,” he said.

Valdivia-Diego is part of North Carolina’s diverse and sizable youth population, ages 18-42, that has the power to reshape the state’s political landscape in elections, according to experts. 

Compared with previous generations of young voters, there has been an overall upward trend for youth voting in North Carolina, with an increase of 9 percent in youth voter turnout from 2014-18, according to a report by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, CIRCLE, at Tufts University. But those born from 1981 to 2005, or millennials and Generation Z voters, still have the lowest voter turnout of any generation in North Carolina.

“If you get these two generations, Millennials and Gen Z, to at least punch up to their political weight, there would be, I think, a very distinct, political shift in the state,” Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, said. Bitzer studies youth voter demographics and trends in the state. Youth voters are not voting in numbers as large as their population, he said.

Despite being the largest, most racially diverse group of potential voters in North Carolina, millennial and Gen Z voters have the lowest voter turnout of any generation. This phenomenon poses both challenges and opportunities for the state’s political landscape. 

With efforts to increase youth voter registration and participation, as well as the rise of unaffiliated young voters, there is a growing potential for a distinct political shift. Conservative leaders perceive the youth vote as a threat, leading to proposed measures to limit voter access, according to Bitzer and Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee .

Beyond the apathy narrative

Some millennial and Gen Z voters say it isn’t apathy, or lack of interest, that keeps young voters from the polls. 

Waad Husein, a 27-year-old Muslim American and user experience designer in Morrisville, recognizes the importance of voting and takes an interest in voting in her local elections too. Husein has worked with Muslim Women For, a Cary-based nonpartisan, grassroots organization, to engage Muslim Americans in the voting process. 

“I don’t think it’s apathy,” she said about lower youth voter turnouts, but “it might be about feeling helpless or defeated in tough situations and maybe also a lack of trust in people of power.” 

In terms of how significant the youth vote can be for the outcome of elections in states across the U.S., North Carolina ranks seventh, according to the 2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index by CIRCLE at Tufts University

North Carolina also has the second-largest population of college-educated adults older than 25 in the South, according to the American Community Survey. Approximately 1.5 million North Carolinans ages 25-44 have a “high-quality degree or credential,” based on a 2021 statewide educational attainment report

Together, millennials and Gen Z voters also make up the most racially diverse generations of voters in North Carolina, according to the demographic data from the NC State Board of Elections.

Among those born between 1946 and 1964, or the baby boomers, 71.5 percent of registered voters in the state are white, non-Hispanic or Latino, while among Gen Z registered voters 52.3 percent are white, non-Hispanic or Latino. But not all younger voters report their race or ethnicity, and the number of nonwhite voters could be even higher.  

There were more than 387,000 eligible Black youth voters in 2020 in North Carolina, which according to a 2020 CIRCLE report, is far higher than former President Donald Trump’s margin of victory in the state.    

Despite their political weight in possibly altering the outcome of elections, millennial and Gen Z turnout is lower than it could be. 

In the 2020 presidential election, when 75 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls—a record turnout for North Carolina—both Gen Z and millennials were at 61 percent, while boomers were at 86 percent turnout, Bitzer said.

Chelley Trammell, a 22-year-old student from Shelby, runs the New Voters Project chapter at UNC Charlotte for Student PIRGS, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to increase youth voter participation at public universities.

Trammell is a dual major, studying criminology and political science. She voted in her first election in 2018 and has since been working on educating student voters on civic engagement.

“I hear a lot of people saying my voice isn’t going to be heard, and many think it’s bad for their mental health to engage with politics,” she said. “But I always tell them that if you aren’t thinking about your vote, you should know that your bosses, your landlord, the rich people and corporations are thinking about it.

“If you’re not voting, you’re only helping the powerful hurt you in the long run,” she said.

Why is youth voter turnout lower?

Overall, voter turnout among young people has been increasing but not compared with the population of eligible young voters. 

“The voting rate for young voters had continuously dropped until we got to the 2020 election, when voting rates among younger people started to increase,” said Niall Michelson, associate professor of political science and public affairs at WCU. 

This may be a reaction to the deep political polarization in the country and the Donald Trump phenomenon, he said. 

In the 2022 general elections, for example, voter registration for millennials was at 26 percent, but only 18 percent cast their ballots. During the same period, Gen Z voter registration was at 13 percent, and only 6 percent voted, based on data from the State Board of Elections for voter registration and electorate, analyzed by Bitzer.   

This shows that the population of registered youth voters is larger than the turnout or the number of youth voters actually casting their ballots.

Some academic experts say youth voter turnout has always been low and isn’t an issue unique to millennials and Gen Z voters. 

“Young people regardless of generation don’t turn out to vote in large numbers,” Cooper said. The vast majority of the turnout gap is simply due to age, he said. 

“Young voters aren’t as rooted in their communities, don’t have a habit of voting and aren’t as convinced that voting is the way to make a change,” he said. 

Graph: This graph shows the percentage of registered voters by generation compared to the percentage of voters casting ballots for each generation. The demographic data is for North Carolina general elections from 2016-2022. Source: Michael Bitzer, Catawba College

Since the last presidential election, more young people have registered to vote in North Carolina, but it remains to be seen whether youth voter turnout will increase or continue to remain lower. Since 2020, more than 800,000 new voters registered in the state.

Approximately 53 percent of the newly registered voters in the state are younger than 35, compared with 25 percent in the previous election, according to the Carolina Population Center at UNC Chapel Hill. The number of newly registered youth voters has increased this year, and many of them could be first-time voters.

Political scientists, such as Bitzer, are researching lower youth voter turnout, but organizers and young voters say that some reasons could be as simple as young people not having the education or resources to learn about how to register and the voting process, as well as the barriers to voting—access to polling locations and access to absentee ballots. 

Nonprofit and nonpartisan organizations in the state are striving to boost youth voter registration and participation ahead of elections to grapple with the perplexing challenge of low turnout among registered young voters.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s causing North Carolina youth voter turnout to be much lower than other states with large youth voting populations, such as Wisconsin and Michigan,” said Daniel Gilligan, a co-founder of Current NC, a nonpartisan North Carolina-based organization that helps first-time voters navigate registration and voting.

“The outcomes of the past few elections in Wisconsin and Michigan were driven by the youth vote.”

The voting process for youth isn’t the easiest and could be a reason for lower turnout, he said.

Martha Plaehn, 19, runs the New Voters Project chapter at UNC Chapel Hill for Student PIRGSs. Plaehn is a queer student from Asheville studying political science. 

She is invested in educating first-time voters about the voting process. 

“I don’t think it’s because young people don’t care; it’s because many don’t have the resources or education to just know how to jump through all the hoops it takes to vote these days,” Plaehn said. Any barriers to voting, such as Voter ID laws, make it harder for young people to vote and discourage them from doing so, she said.

In April, the NC Supreme Court reversed its earlier ruling on Voter IDs. Starting with the 2023 municipal elections in September, voters will be required to show photo identification. 

For most this would mean showing a North Carolina driver’s license.  But those who don’t have a valid license would have to take additional steps to request an acceptable form of photo identification, according to the State Board of Elections. 

For young voters, particularly college students with hectic schedules, “the first step to voting is registering, the second is knowing how to cast your ballot either through an absentee ballot or going in person back home or to a nearby location and then remembering to bring required documents such as a voter ID,” said Manny Rin, the executive director of the New Voters Project with Student PIRGS

“Every additional step to the voting process is going to make it more challenging,” Rin said. 

Some say that the compounding of major global events, such as the pandemic and multiple recessions, may have contributed to feelings of helplessness among young voters. 

“Younger voters have grown up and lived in a world where their country has been at war pretty much for their lifetime, and it could be easy to fall into nihilism or pessimism about the world,” Gilligan said. 

“But it is exciting to see that they do want to stand up and do something about the issues that are important to them,” he said.

Valdivia-Diego plans on voting in the next election and the upcoming presidential election in 2024. 

Husein is hopeful that the youth voter turnout will increase. “Millennials and Gen Z are passionate and say what is on their minds publicly,” she said. “They mobilize themselves and don’t wait on others to lead them.” 

Plaehn agrees.

“Social media has revolutionized the way that young people view politics, and I think that Gen Z is coming into democracy fired up,” she said. 

Many young voters are interested in political issues and do want to participate in voting but often don’t have the knowledge or access to resources on how to register or vote. 

The rise of unaffiliated young voters

Voters under the age of 42 are driving the rise of the unaffiliated voter status in North Carolina.

“These two generations are recognized as the most racially diverse, and Gen Z will probably be the most educated generation of any generation in U.S. history,” said Bitzer, “and if you look at the Gen Z cohort, at present they are getting close to 50 percent registered, unaffiliated status.” 

In the past, the silent (the cohort that preceded baby boomers), boomer and Generation X blocs of voters were more evenly divided in their partisan identification, according to a Pew Research Center report on partisanship across generations. With millennials, the divide grew, with more than 51 percent identifying as Democrats and 35 percent identifying as Republicans, according to the report. 

“In the U.S., we have never seen that big of a partisan gap in generational politics,” Bitzer said. 

Table 2: Generation Cohort by Party Registration, 2008-2020. Source: “The Rise of the Unaffiliated Voter in North Carolina”

White North Carolinians make up the largest percentage of unaffiliated voters, at 66 percent in 2020, according to a 2020 study on unaffiliated North Carolina voters. 

Young voters are less invested in political parties and candidates than the issues that are important to them such as gun violence, the environment, and reproductive rights, among others, according to Gilligan.

“There is a party preference, but that’s not the driving force, and they’re not interested in candidates in the same way that older generations are,” Gilligan said. “There’s a stark divide between the two parties on important issues, and it’s those issues that drive young votes.” 

Cooper has also seen, through his research into young unaffiliated voters, that many young voters are increasingly choosing to not identify with political parties.

“Young people are just more distrustful of political parties,” he said. “But part of this is also that our primaries are now open to unaffiliated voters, whereas in the past if you registered as unaffiliated, you were shut out of the party primaries.” 

Bitzer sees the rise of unaffiliated voters to be a response to the deep partisan divide in the country.

“I think the rise of the unaffiliated younger vote among Gen Z is just a classic response to their political environment,” he said. 

“By registering unaffiliated, they are saying we don’t want any labels associated with us.” 

Youth voters pose a threat to conservative leaders

The youth vote and voter suppression methods have been heavily debated among conservative leaders. In North Carolina, a series of bills have been proposed on voting and the election process.

In April, Cleta Mitchell, a conservative lawyer and Republican legal strategist who recently moved to North Carolina, was reported to be planning to limit voter access and turnout for young voters and students in North Carolina and other states. 

“Conservatives must band together to limit voting on college campuses, same-day voter registration and automatic mailing of ballots to registered voters,” she said. “Our constitutional republic’s survival is at stake.” 

Mitchell was a key figure in the attempt to reverse the 2020 presidential election and runs the Election Integrity Network at the Conservative Partnership Institute, a coalition of conservative leaders and citizens. 

If young people voted at the same rates as older voters, it would change who gets elected, Cooper said. 

“Voters under the age of 40 are turning against Republican orthodoxy, philosophy, ideology and policy perspectives,” Bitzer said. “I think the overall generational dynamics at play here in North Carolina point to a real problem for the Republican Party among younger voters.”

Various voter suppression methods are being proposed for this reason to keep turnout lower in the younger demographic, he said.

Carolina Public Press contacted Mitchell to ask her about these comments and proposed measures to suppress young voters but didn’t receive a response. 

“The fact that they’re paying this much attention to try and suppress young people’s votes tells you that it’s something of importance,” Gilligan said, commenting on Mitchell’s statements about youth voters. 

“I think that through oppressive policies they’re trying to get rid of democracy.”

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