‘Y’all messed it up last time’

Young voters are engaged on the issues and ready to vote despite lukewarm feelings on Biden

The "Moving America Forward" rally, held in Alumni Hall of the HUB-Robeson Center on Penn State's University Park campus. By Penn State

Amanda Battle was six months away from turning 18 when she watched, powerless to do anything, as Donald Trump was elected president. 

Emily Peters watched, furious that she couldn’t vote and Jaida Shellaugh was so stressed she went to sleep, pushing the news until the next morning. 

Battle, Peters and Shellaugh, along with most other members of Generation Z were still in high school during the 2016 election, missing out on being able to cast a vote in a state that was decided by 23,000 votes — less than the number of students on the UW-Milwaukee campus. 

Battle and Shellaugh are now both 21-year-old students at UW-Whitewater and members of the school’s Black Student Union. Peters is a 20-year-old at UW-Whitewater and the president of the campus group Students Allied for a Green Earth (SAGE).

This year, they’re excited to be able to cast their first presidential votes at a time when everything feels so consequential and the issues feel so personal. 

“I remember staying up and watching them count the electoral college votes and being so mad,” Battle, a Little Chute native, says. “I was furious, I could not believe it. It was insane to me. Not being able to vote, being six months off from voting was infuriating.” 

“Now I’m trying to do my part, make sure we do it because y’all messed it up last time,” she added. “I’m really motivated to do the best I can, I can’t do four more years of this.”

The UW-Whitewater Black Student Union is working with groups to try to register students to vote and encourage them to turn out and vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

For a generation that grew up in an era of turmoil, amid violence at home, overseas and in their classrooms, as the economy crashed twice and climate change continued to worsen, there are lots of issues that feel deeply personal for young people. 

Addressing climate change, gun violence, racial injustice and rising student loan debt all came up in interviews with several Wisconsin students at schools across the state. After the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the empty seat on the court was also a motivating issue for young people. 

Keegan Little, the field director for the UW-Oshkosh College Democrats, sees those issues come up over and over again in his conversations with students, and says if students don’t feel heard on the things most important to them, they might not vote at all. 

“If they don’t see those things being addressed they’re not going to support Joe Biden,” Little says. “We want to focus on things people understand. Your right to choose is on the line, your possibility to receive government-assisted healthcare is on the line.”

Little was “just barely” able to vote in 2016 and supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary. His message to skeptical voters on his campus is that on day one of a Biden presidency they can begin activism for more progressive policies that seemed like moonshots under Trump. 

He thinks UW-Oshkosh will have record turnout on campus, continuing a trend that began in the 2018 midterms. But it’s important to reach out to students because they aren’t traditional Democrats like Biden. 

“I do believe young people have reservations about Biden’s plans,” Little says. “They see other new candidates running that motivate them and associate the Democratic party with them like [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. We’re not seeing a growing amount of liberals on our campus, we’re seeing a growing amount of progressives on campus.”

“I think students know there’s a better option [than Trump], there’s a better way to have a president,” he continued.

Polling shows that young people mostly support Biden but aren’t especially excited doing so. In Wisconsin, 18-29 year olds mostly supported Sanders in the presidential primary. A NextGen America poll released in August that surveyed 1,000 young people — including voters in Wisconsin — found that 61% support Biden. A Harvard Youth Poll released recently found that 60% of likely voters in this age group support Biden. 

But behind the topline numbers of these polls is a more complicated picture. 

The NextGen poll found that 77% of those surveyed definitely planned to vote, the Harvard poll found that 63% of young voters will definitely vote. Those numbers far surpass the turnout of young people in 2016 and show that this age group could vote in numbers not seen since 2008. But the young people that support Trump are much more enthusiastic than the ones that support Biden, the Harvard poll found. 

The challenge to the Biden campaign is making sure young people feel heard. 

Lev Pearlman, NextGen’s field organizer for UW-Whitewater and UW-Platteville, says he’s come across this exact thinking, but believes efforts to get Biden’s message out on issues such as climate change is working. 

“I think the most important thing for youth voters is they feel like they’re being listened to,” Pearlman, who himself was too young to vote in 2016, says. “On issues of climate change, the Biden campaign has done a great job in showing that they’re listening.”

The campaign itself says it is reaching young voters, through get-out-the-vote efforts and working with college Democrat groups and more progressive organizations such as the climate-focused Sunshine Movement. 

“From grassroots organizing to digital advertising, the Biden campaign is meeting young people where they are,” Biden campaign spokesperson Nate Evans said in a statement. “While Donald Trump goes to bat for the wealthy, Joe Biden will fight for a better future for young people across Wisconsin — that means expanding access to affordable health care, taking on the existential threat of climate change, and making college more affordable for all Americans.” 

The campaign has been pushing its climate plan in its message to young voters on the platforms where young people are most likely to see them. The digital ads on Instagram that the Biden campaign is targeting at Wisconsin’s 18-29 year olds often feature his climate plans. 

Global Warming -- protest sign. Wake Up with Earth on fire
Global Warming — protest sign. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Peters is concerned Biden’s climate plan won’t be enough. 

She says she likes parts of the Biden climate plan, but doesn’t think some aspects are drastic enough. 

Biden’s climate plan aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, which is not nearly fast enough for Peters. But what motivates her isn’t just the vote for Biden, it’s that a vote for Biden brings new leadership to the Environmental Protection Agency and other climate-related federal agencies. 

“I don’t love Joe Biden, being a younger person, but it’s so much more about all the other things he could do, versus whether or not you really like Joe Biden,” Peters says. “When you’re voting you’re not just voting for whoever’s president, you’re voting for specifically who is going to be on the Supreme Court or who Joe Biden would put in the head of the EPA because right now the head is a climate denier.” 

Shellaugh, a Milwaukee native, says she wants to see more action taken on criminal justice reform such as bans of no-knock warrants. But she says there’s a divide in excitement between the students on campus in Walworth County and the people she knows from home. 

“If we do vote a lot, we can have more say in the next election — we’re the unheard population,” she says. “I see both sides, people in college who are like ‘vote, vote, vote’ but people who are back home saying ‘what are we going to get out of this?’ I can see why, but I can never be like I’m not going to vote … there’s a lot more at stake.”