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Young people across the US aren’t voting
Illustration Callum Abbott

Young people across the US aren’t voting – why?

This election, an increasing number of millennials and Gen Zers are tired of the political rat race and want more

The November 3 US presidential election approaches against the backdrop of a year that has upended many of our illusions of safety. The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of Americans jobless, stricken with the virus, and struggling to share resources the government is failing to provide. Over 220,000 people are dead. May and the following months saw rubber bullets, wooden pellets, pepper spray, and tear gas fly, as local police departments and the National Guard inflicted brutality on protesters all around the country, and world. Cities, like Minneapolis, broke new ground when its city council announced it was disbanding the police force, but even this reform has been met with criticism about its true authenticity.

All the while young people are being asked to cast their vote for a political system that, to many, is showing itself to be less effective and increasingly fascist, racist, and xenophobic. This is without even taking into account valid concerns of voter suppression. In a year of violent protests and clashes with the police, there is a new demographic in the American public: young people turning away from voting and towards other political possibilities, like police/prison abolition and mutual aid.

In every election season, 2020 included, think pieces and op-eds call out the shameless pandering for voters from Black, brown, and marginalised populations. But in 2020, with serious calls for police and prison abolition, many young people are questioning the validity of voting; even challenging the notion of voting as a form of harm reduction.

So what’s at the crux of young people choosing not to vote? Many see the voting system as neither democratic, representative, nor as fair as claimed. The electoral college, which takes precedence over the individual vote, favours small states and rural areas, locations where voters are more likely to support Donald Trump. People are critical of the racist origins of US voting, including the Two-Thirds Compromise, which regarded enslaved Black people as property and not political subjects worthy of representation. These critiques can be taken further when we account for the estimated five million felons unable to vote, according to a 2020 Sentencing Project report, the estimated 500,000 homeless people  in the US who may have difficulty voting in the 35 states that require some sort of identification, or the millions of tax-paying, undocumented people typically unable to vote. Additionally, a 2018 study found that over 78,000 trans people may be inhibited from voting due to voter ID laws in just eight states alone. 

Sasha Gough is a 24-year-old activist, organiser, and president of Free Skool in Garrettsville, Ohio – a non-profit that offers education on diverse subjects for the local community. Gough voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016, and became disillusioned with the fact that their ideal candidate wouldn’t be elected through the primaries. 

Gough won’t be voting this time. “Up until last week, I probably would have told you that I was going to in-person voting and I just kept putting it off, when it really just came down to the fact that I didn’t want to vote,” Gough tells Dazed. “I didn’t want to put my voice out there because I knew it didn’t matter, and I would rather do something that helps me with my consciousness.”

From July 30 to October, Gough has been the lead organiser of local Black Lives Matter protests. Part way through the summer, counter-protesters surfaced, leading to heightened racial tensions. A local, Black doctoral student had “white power” yelled at her at a gas station, and countless death threats were made to local BLM organisers online. The violent harassment was coupled with Rick Patrick, the Garrettsville mayor saying BLM demonstrators had to put their “big boy panties on”. It has taken a toll on activists, like Gough, who triple checks the locks on their home doors.

This speaks to larger structural issues that have affected marginalised populations in the US since this country’s conception. While white colonisers killed Indigenous tribes, profited off of the labour of enslaved Black people, and established a sociopolitical hierarchy that included voting rights and other structural safety nets for themselves, marginalised populations faced de-facto and dejure segregation, lynchings, interninment camps, economic discrimination, police murders, and white supremacist violence on their path to earning political representation and autonomy. The Trump administration’s xenophobic and racist policies and its lacklustre response to the pandemic has removed many of said safety nets for even the more cushioned Americans.

“You can’t hide from death now,” Sekou Kimathi, a 24-year-old Atlanta resident, says gravely. Kimathi is yet another young person disillusioned by the system, citing the Democratic party’s history of pandering to and then abandoning Black voters. “We can go to school for 12 years and be functionally illiterate in Chicago public schools. School is a dangerous environment which isn’t conducive to learning,” Kimathi says. He believes that the subpar, public education system blocks most people, especially Black people, from having a nuanced understanding of the US’s history of colonialism.

“I can’t vote for the supposed left, because they have told us that what’s happening now is much worse than any other time before. Their platform mirrors 2016 – vote for us because we are not Trump” – Kim Reynolds

Kim M Reynolds, a Black, queer, critical media scholar, writer, artist, and poet left the US in 2017 and is now based in Cape Town, pursuing a double masters degree. Since moving abroad, Reynolds has voted in a local Ohio election and in this 2020 presidential primary election. “I can’t vote for the supposed left, because they have told us that what’s happening now is much worse than any other time before. Their platform mirrors 2016 – vote for us because we are not Trump,” Reynolds states. “There is nothing that’s out of the order under Trump, given American and world history. Andrew Jackson oversaw a mass genocide of Indigenous people. We can’t be surprised that Barack Obama constructed private prisons and detention centres for immigrant children and that Trump used them! We can’t.”

Demanding more than what’s currently on offer from the political sphere feels fervent among young people today. An Atlantic article back in January explored how capitalism broke young adulthood, and why so many young people across demographics put their faith in Bernie Sanders. Gough, Kimathi, and Reynolds are young activists who feel exploited by capitalism’s violence. Since the early 1980s, millennials and Gen Zers have borne witness to the War on Drugs, the 1992 Rodney King riots, the War on Terror following 9/11, public shootings at the hands of white supremacists, the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the Occupy movement, the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, environmental emergency, and much more.

This fraught backdrop has shifted the threshold for political violence and apathy. A 2019 Gallup report notes that socialism is as popular as capitalism among young people in the US. Since 2016, Teen Vogue has quenched the thirst for more radical and nuanced reportage for increasingly conscious young people. In January 2017, the magazine’s online reach hit 7.9 million. In the riots following the police murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis police precint was burned down on May 29. A Monmouth University poll found that 54 per cent of Americans believed that the precinct burning was justified; demands for police and prison abolition are becoming increasingly considered, especially among marginalised people.

For millennials and Gen Zers, their whole lives have been embroiled with media images of police brutality and murder. Black burnout in the face of constant police brutality has produced the largest movement in US history this year, with up to 26 million people protesting throughout the summer. The question still remains about whether this political thrust is a moment of reform, or an actual push for the abolishment of the very systems that harm marginalised people in the first place.

Eva Dickerson, a farmer and freedom dreamer in Atlanta, Georgia, was pulling into their driveway on October 25 when they received a text from a BLM volunteer that read: “George Floyd and Breonna Taylor can’t vote, but you can. From the protest to the polls, find where to vote…” Dickerson tweeted a screenshot of the text, with the caption: “Not even in death can we rest. Not even in the care of our own people can we rest.” The interaction exposes a strategy often used to compel Black people to vote – the reminder that the Black vote was earned with Black protests and blood.

It is important to acknowledge the work of past struggles for voting, like campaigns to increase Black literacy – which was a structural obstacle for Black voters trying to overcome voter suppression – and for present movements to commit and recommit to the dignity of Black people. And still, the commitment to the Black dignity must include political possibilities beyond the act of voting.

“Capitalism and white supremacy have nearly succeeded in making my people believe that participation in the system that kills us is the only thing that can free us” – Eva Dickerson

“It’s emblematic of the chokehold electorism has on our people’s imaginative capacity,” Dickerson tells Dazed, condemning the weaponising of Black deaths like Floyd and Taylor to compel people to vote. “Capitalism and white supremacy have nearly succeeded in making my people believe that participation in the system that kills us is the only thing that can free us. Either that or it’s succeeded in convincing us we don’t really want to be free,” Dickerson says.

Despite this year’s political rockbottoms, the case for a better world is already present. Mutual aid networks have arisen around the US in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Riots and demonstrations have given way to deeper knowledge on how to combat the tyranny of policing and the carceral system. Projects like Cooperation Jackson present alternative frameworks, like solidarity economies “anchored by a network of cooperatives and other types of worker-owned and democratically self-managed enterprises”. 

Gough, Kimathi, Reynolds, and Dickerson don’t claim to have all the answers to the political dilemmas facing people today, but they do know that much of the groundwork has been laid by past struggles, including this year.

“To the young non-voters, I would say that non-participation makes a strong statement but it is not mutual aid, it is not abolition, it is not canvassing, it is not a strategy,” says Dickerson. “The point of non-participation is that you direct that energy and those resources elsewhere, specifically towards hyperlocal strategies of care and freedom infrastructure.”

Gough, who is president of Garretsville’s Free Skool, agrees with the political strategy of concentrating on local issues. Various members of the Garrettsville Village Council declared systemic racism to be a public health issue, but Gough wants more than just talk from more white politicians. “The government is a functioning machine right now, and it’s going to continue to function until we say we don’t want this machine to do this. It’s on us to stop it.”

Gough hopes to make Free Skool an anchor in their community for political education, and is looking for a physical space to run courses from in the future. Kimathi’s vision of politics beyond voting is self-determining communes in cities and mega-regions, skill development for community engineers, anti-development of capitalist city planning, and international solidarity.

“It will require collective respect, it will require processes to deal with abusers, and to make a world where men are not some of the greatest threats to our lives as Black women, Black queer women, Black trans women, Black gender non conforming people,” Reynolds says. “It will require a relinquishing of power, and a narrowing of policing the gender binary and neighbourhoods with CCTV. It will require more from people who are not Black women, because we are the most forgotten, most hated, most crossed, and most unsafe in this world.”

No matter what the outcome of the 2020 presidential election is, young people are proving that “the vote” doesn’t matter as much as the most marginalised in society, and what they are willing to do to gain political autonomy.