Cinematic arts senior Zahra Ghoncheh wasn’t old enough to vote in the 2016 election, but it was during that political season that she realized she wanted her voice heard. She began researching candidates and policies to become well-informed by the time she could finally cast her ballot.
“I feel like it’s just really important to be aware as a young person because a lot of these things not only just affect us, but everyone else around us,” Ghoncheh said.
With the current presidential election looming, that time has come. Ghoncheh and thousands of other young Generation Z individuals who weren’t eligible in the 2016 election are now old enough to vote.
Although it is unclear how much of the demographic will actually show up to the polls, Gen Z makes up about 10% of the eligible voter population. Historically, young voters have turned out at low numbers for elections, said Rebecca Deen, political science chairperson and associate professor.
Gen Z is the generation of people born after 1996. They are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, and are on track to become the most well-educated generation, according to the Pew Research Center.
The generation is made up of “digital natives,” people who have few memories of life before smartphones. This has led to a unity in Gen Z previously unseen in other generations, thanks in large part to the internet and social media, Deen said.
Ghoncheh stays informed through Instagram because there are accounts and posts for political infographics. From there she takes to Google to make sure the info adds up and checks the personal websites of any politicians she comes across.
Something different about campaigns this year, particularly on social media, was the emphasis on convincing young voters to register, Deen said. Traditionally, campaigns excluded young voters because they have a limited amount of money to advertise with, Deen said, and didn’t want to waste resources on a demographic that doesn’t vote.
However, this year nearly all major social media platforms have displayed banners advertising voting registration, and Gen Z themselves have been spreading the word at increased rates.
For students like public health senior Adam Gonzales who haven’t had a long-standing interest in politics, this year’s election seemed overwhelming.
Everything’s been going downhill lately, Gonzales said, which made him realize it was time to consider a new option: educating himself and voting. And he’s not alone.
He recognizes that there might be an educational bias in it, but Gonzales said his friends who aren’t in college are also planning to vote, something signifying a change in young people’s voting mind-set.
“You can definitely see that there are more and more individuals who are willing to vote,” he said.
The biggest mystery factor Gen Zers have up their sleeves is that they generally have far greater disapproval rates of President Donald Trump than other generations, Deen said.
“They see the Republican Party as the same thing as Donald Trump, which makes a whole lot of sense because that’s what they know,” she said.
Because their entire adult lives have been spent under Trump’s presidency, Gen Z can most easily equate him as the face of the Republican Party.
Before Trump, Gen Z can remember Barack Obama as president. For older generations, having a Black president was obviously unprecedented.
“That’s not the case for Gen Z,” Deen said, “It’s a normal thing. Like they get that it’s historic, but it just seems normal.”
This in itself captures the difference in mind-set and perspective of those born into Gen Z as opposed to other generations; their early memories are all of the Obama administration.
And then we had the transition to Trump, who could not be more different, Deen said, and even those who weren’t politically aware surely took note of the change, and more importantly, their peers’ reaction to it.
As a result Gen Z is angry, Deen said. The question is whether they’re angry enough.
Something to note, she said, is the way humans are societally trained to act in different stages of their lives. Being a teenager — whether that’s in the ’80s, ’90s or today — means a person is generally more likely to be progressive, but it also means they’re less likely to go out and vote.
Through protests and online campaigns, many Gen Zers have a high efficacy; however, when it comes to the question of if their votes matter, they’re much less certain.
This is a modern problem that political science senior Junior Ezeonu is saddened to hear of because he believes in the power that young voters hold.
“I want to bring everybody to that political process,” Ezeonu said. “I’m tired of people standing on the outskirts looking in and feeling like they cannot participate because their vote doesn’t matter.”
As both a member of the Archer Fellowship Program and someone who aspires to be a senator someday, the education of young people about politics is his biggest passion.
Ezeonu even made a YouTube channel, called FairPlay Politics, for that very purpose, to educate about politics in a way that he hopes is entertaining and informative.
Getting young people registered to vote is only where the work begins, Ezeonu said. The issue is getting them to the polls and completing the process.
Ezeonu knows that Gen Z is tired of feeling like their votes mean nothing, and understands why many attend protests instead of casting a ballot.
“But what I also have to remind them is that you cannot change the system without influence of the system,” Ezeonu said. “How do you influence the system? Through your votes.”
Some elections are decided by fewer than a couple hundred votes, Deen said. You can’t hear that and say that your vote doesn’t matter, that individual people can’t have an effect on the outcome.
“The most direct impact we can have is the choice of who is going to represent us,” Deen said.
It’s more important now than ever to make sure students are educating themselves on candidates and not just for the presidential election.
All elections impact you whether you realize it or not, and voting for positions like senators and even school board elections are important.
Deen recommends the Pew Research Center website for studies and political information, but if reading isn’t for you, she’d recommend a political podcast, or even just tuning in to the news.
But research aside, actually turning up to the polls is the single most important step, Deen said.
“You really can’t complain if you don’t participate,” Deen said. “Instead of complaining, figure out a way to make a difference. One component of which is voting.”
Now that Ghoncheh can finally vote, she said she’s sure to make her individual voice heard. And in the end if the results don’t go the way she wanted, she’ll know that she tried her best, that she didn’t give up without a fight.