With their future at a crossroads, young Americans are shattering voting records

More than 7 million young people have already voted in this year’s election, many driven by racial inequality, gun violence, and climate change.

Photos by Graham J. Dickie, National Geographic
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Mariah Campbell sits outside a polling place in a Third Ward neighborhood in Houston, Texas on October 29. Campbell, a junior at Texas Southern University, mentors students on the importance of voting. “I think with the recent happenings with, of course, racial injustice and the pandemic, it's kind of driving people to be more passionate about the things that are happening in our world, as well as passionate about electing leaders that have the same ideas and values that they do," Campbell said.

Photos by Graham J. Dickie, National Geographic

The echo from the loudspeakers took over the purple lot at NRG stadium Thursday night in Houston, Texas as dozens of cars trickled into a drive-in concert across the street from one of eight 24-hour early voting sites.

Votersss who cast their ballots at the all-night voting locations in Harris County helped lead Texas to record breaking voter turnout four days before election day. With 9,669,246 votes cast by Friday, the last day of early voting in Texas, the state already has shattered its 2016 voting record.

By Friday, 86 million Americans had cast their ballots, according to the U. S. Election Project. The pace of voting across the country is on track to reach participation levels not seen since 1908. (New Yorkers explain why they made the extra effort to vote early.)

Young voters have been making their voices heard and mobilizing, an extension of rising youth activism in response to concerns about issues such as racial inequality, climate change and gun violence. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, voters ages 18 to 29 are voting in record numbers, including more than seven million young people have already voted early or absentee in the 2020 elections.

“I think with the recent happenings with, of course, racial injustice and the pandemic, it's kind of driving people to be more passionate about the things that are happening in our world as well as just passionate about electing leaders that have the same ideas and values that they do,” Texas Southern University junior Mariah Campbell said.

The Harvard Youth Poll, a bi-annual poll of Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics published this week, also found historic interest in this year’s election. Young Americans are on track to surpass record-setting 2008 youth voting numbers. Among the young respondents to the poll, 63 percent said they will “definitely be voting” compared with 47 percent during the fall of 2016.

“This is an age cohort who’s grown up in the age of the fear of school shootings.” Director of the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics Mark D. Gearan said of the reasons for increased youth civic participation. “Most recently they've had their lives upended by the pandemic. I think the issues of racial and social justice and reckoning that we've seen …so all of those things are very real and observed.”

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Twins Laura and Rachel Spencer cast their votes on their 18th birthday on October 28 in Austin, Texas. The sisters, accompanied by their mother, talked about the influence of young social media stars and their impact on things like President Donald Trump's June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when TikTok stars had their followers reserve thousands of tickets and then did not attend the event.

Drew Galloway executive director of MOVE Texas, which works to inform and empower voters, has seen youth voter engagement in Texas increase tremendously since the 2016.

“The 2018 election was a catalyst for this moment right now because we saw youth voting in Texas triple that election,” Galloway said. “We knew we had to really reach out to more young people in Texas and get them engaged for this election.”

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Jewel Watts, 22, cast her ballot on October 28 in Austin. "All the young people will be living in the future that everyone else is [voting for]," Watts said. "We're really stepping up and trying to decide our future and not let what's happening now continue. Everything has been thrown out in the open, which is good, but then it's time to say, 'We need to make a change about this.'"

Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee believes that equality is what has driven the youth to get out and exercise their civic duty.

“Equality has been the call of youth,” Lee said. “They believe in equality and that's what our nation has stood on, democracy, equality, freedom and justice.”

Greg Huttenhower, a 22 year old from Houston, attended the drive-in concert after voting.

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Blake Melton and D'Angelo Colter, students at Texas Southern University in Houston, cast votes on October 29. “I truly saw that the 2018 election was kind of a turning point, especially with youth voter engagement," Colter said. "I know with the [2018 Senate election] with Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke, I think Beto truly captivated a lot of young people.”

“I didn't vote in the last election and I felt like I missed an opportunity,” said Huttenhower, a first time voter. “So I for sure, I didn't want to do that again.”

Harris County commissioner Rodney Ellis talked to concert attendees about the importance of the youth vote, highlighting the state’s restrictive voting laws.

“We're in a state where we have some of the more restrictive voter participation laws in the country, it’s harder to get registered, to vote here than most places in the country,” Ellis said. “I think that a lot of those efforts to deter people from voting has had the reverse effect.

It's made them mad as hell, and a lot of them are young and they're coming out and a lot of them are black, a lot are Hispanic, a lot of them are white, a lot of them are LGBTQ and they are just really wanting to make a statement.” (Voter suppression has haunted America since it was founded.)

Campbell, the Texas Southern University student, from Longview Texas, said the 2016 presidential election was a strong motivator for the youth to get out and participate.

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Charlie Bonner of MOVE Texas works at a drive-in "get out the vote" concert in Houston, Texas on October 29, headlined by rapper Bun B. The concert at NRG Stadium was next to a 24-hour polling place, the first of its kind in Texas. “This is a generation very in touch with our values," Bonner said. "Now we are at a point where we are taking action on our values at the ballot box. And so whether it be racial justice and police violence or acting on climate change, acting to prevent campus sexual assault, all these sorts of things [our generation] has really led on."

“The outcome of the 2016 election really impacted people in my demographic.” Campbell said. “Young African-Americans, specifically, because of all the racial tension and division within our country, people have kind of opened their eyes to see, okay, this is a big thing.”

When early voting started in Texas in mid October, Texas Southern held a voting rally for students and the local community. Sophomore Blake Nelson thinks that the rally helped inspire youth voters.

“We gathered all our freshmen and our upperclassmen, and we all rallied the library, promoting, voting,” Nelson said. “We were passing out flyers. We actually went old school and used the megaphone and the rally really promoted and encouraged others to vote.”

Jordan Wilson, a 2016 graduate of Howard University, says she walked into the 2016 election not really knowing much about the state and local politicians on the ballot. So she co-founded the Politicking App whose mission is to provide straightforward political information and galvanize young voters.

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The app has hosted local, state, and national politicians to present campaign platforms or to simply discuss politics. Wilson says the app is focused on helping people better understand issues to they can form their own opinions.

“I think we're even far beyond hanging on to traditional identities like Republican or Democrat,” Wilson said. “In fact, this year, a third of participants in the 2020 election are projected to be Independent.” (Counting votes as always been complicated—but the rise of mail-in voting makes for a particularly challenging election.)

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Sean Carrigan, 23 and Avery Baldwin, 21, after casting their ballots in Austin, Texas, said young people want elected leaders who represent them. "Young people want younger people in office," Baldwin said. "That's who best represents us. We're not represented in government at all. We've literally got these geriatric, on-the-verge-of-dying people in office, and that shouldn't be a thing. They have the mentality of how people were thinking in the early '80s. It's just like, 'No, we don't need that any more.' They represent rich, old white people, and we're not rich old white people."

Grammy award-nominated rapper Bun B was the main event of the drive-in concert. He said he knows he has a large platform and wants to lead his audience in the right way.

“When you have levels of influence and you build up a trust factor with the people in the community, you have to lead them the right way, people trust my intentions, they trust my direction and people take my lead,” he said. “So, I want to make sure I'm leading them in the right direction and right now the right direction to lead them in is to the polls.”