Voting is at the heart of a participatory democracy — and being able to freely cast a ballot is a hard-won right for the Black community. After all, one of the key victories of the Civil Rights Movement was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it illegal to deny people the right to vote based on their race or skin color.
But although racist poll taxes and literacy tests are a thing of the past, only 43% of young Black Americans ages 18-29 voted in the 2020 presidential election. So as the 2022 election season kicks into high gear, do we know what keeps young Black folks from voting — and do they know why they should cast a ballot?
These are some of the questions filmmaker Diane Robinson wanted to answer when she set out to make the documentary “The Young Vote.” The film, which will be featured in Miami’s American Black Film Festival in June, chronicles two years of research beginning during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“I did not believe the narrative that young people didn’t care and that’s why they didn’t show up to vote in the 2016 election in higher numbers. I knew it was more complicated. Tough problems always have complicated solutions,” Robinson says.
In the film, Robinson follows five diverse young activists and organizers aged 16-27 across California, Kentucky, Texas, Florida, and Georgia as they tackle voter suppression and systemic barriers to participation in the American electoral system. Along the way, “The Young Vote” exposes the realities of voting in America.
Why Do Young People Need to Vote?
Young people aged 18 and older got the right to vote in 1971. Since then, campaigns like “Rock the Vote” or Diddy’s “Vote or Die!” campaigns have tried to get young Americans to participate in democracy. But other easy solutions to registration haven’t been rolled out nationwide. Only 22 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted or implemented some form of automatic voter registration — like registering someone when they interact with the DMV.
And some of these efforts certainly seem to have worked.
According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, young people, particularly youth of color, turned out in record numbers in 2020. The voting power of young Black residents in swing states was especially key to Democrat victories.
“In the presidential race, the overwhelming vote choice of Black youth in Georgia was especially influential, and that was the case once again in the Senate runoffs: more than 90% of young Black voters backed Warnock and Ossoff,” according to CIRCLE’s data analysis.
Indeed, given that kind of influence, Robinson believes that the young vote is instrumental to the success of this country. Older generations have been slow to make changes regarding issues such as climate change and gun control, but these same issues are critical to the success and safety of young people.
“I believe the values and beliefs that this generation of young people have are critical to the survival of our planet and to their future,” Robinson says. “It’s their country. It’s their future. They should have a voice in that. We have failed them on many issues. Look at what’s going on now with gun control. We can’t get that right in this country, and they more than anyone else are suffering from the failure of adults to tackle this problem in their schools and in their communities.”
How Can You Support Young Voters?
Robinson says that the first step is making sure that every young voice is registered to vote. If you are an adult, make sure that your child, nieces, and nephews, and all of the young people in your life know how and when they can register to vote.
According to CIRCLE’s data analysis, “many young people have not been taught about elections and voting; both the practicalities of registering and casting a ballot and the reasons why their voices and votes matter in democracy.” CIRCLE’s researchers found voting by mail gained popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but young people may not be as familiar with the process.
In addition, CIRCLE noted that “young people are often ignored by political campaigns — which tend to rely on records of previous voting — creating a vicious circle in which candidates do not value youth as voters and youth, who don’t see themselves valued, don’t vote.”
High school students are required to take government or civics in order to graduate. But CIRCLE’s data analysis found that only 54% of Black high school students were encouraged to vote by a teacher in high school, compared to 65% of white high schoolers. In addition, only 46% of Black high school students were taught about registering to vote in high school, while 53% of their white peers were.
Robinson also says that young people must familiarize themselves with who and what is on the ballot. Especially in local elections that directly impact their communities, young people must have an opinion on what’s being done.
“It’s really horrific how few people vote in our midterms and our local elections. And when you look at local elections and midterms, they matter a lot. I live in Florida right now, and there are senators and a governor right now who are not making the state very safe when it comes to gun control. They’re up for election — or at least one of those senators — this fall in Florida. If young people want to make a difference on that issue, they have to turn out.”
In her continued effort to support young voters, Robinson is currently working on a website that will help young people register to vote, become informed about ballot issues in their communities, and connect young voters to organizations working for various causes.
We Need to Stay Engaged After Election Day
The key to a healthy democracy is not just voting but continued civic engagement. After voting, it is important that young people continue to advocate for the changes they want to see, and demand elected officials keep their promises.
In addition, Robinson says that one way young people are beginning to forge a new path for themselves in politics is through advocating for open primaries. Independents, or non-party affiliates, are the fastest-growing voter group in the country, and many of them are young people.
Part of “The Young Vote” follows two young voters in Florida as they advocate for open primaries. Instead of having a Democratic and Republican primary, an open primary allows you just one primary, and the top two candidates go to the general election.
“It forces politicians to campaign to everybody, and not just the far left or the far right,” Robinson explains. I think that’s a huge part of why our country is in the huge mess it is now of being so divided. Our political system is designed to push people into camps, and young people have figured this out. In many ways, I think they are going to lead us to a better way.”
Overall, Robinson advises young voters to get involved civically — and stay involved — their communities.
“I want young people to realize that voting is a way to make a difference in the issues they care about,” Robinson says. “I know a lot of them have lost faith in politicians, but when you give up your vote, you give up one of the ways you have to make a difference — whether it’s on gun control, or climate change, or school loans — whatever they care about, this is one of the ways they can take action.”