Mindy Romero & Santiago Mayer

Gen Z > Millennials?

Air Date: January 2, 2023

USC Center for Inclusive Democracy director Mindy Romero and Voters of Tomorrow director Santiago Mayer discuss youth turnout in the 2022 elections and the future of representative government.


Heffner: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today who will analyze the recent 2022 midterm elections and the future of American democracy. Santiago Mayer is Executive Director of Voters of Tomorrow, and Mindy Romero is Director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. Santiago and Mindy, welcome to you both.

Mayer: Thank you for having me.

Romero: And it’s nice to be on with Santiago.

Heffner: Santiago, let me ask you to start, um, because you were actively organizing in this most recent campaign cycle, um, you know, what are, what is your assessment of, of young people’s participation in American democracy?

Mayer: Listen, I think young people are ready to be an active part of American politics in American government, and that is what we saw in, I mean, we had efforts designed by and executed by Generation C meant to and turn out gen voters. And I think we were really successful with that.

Heffner: And, you know, specifically, you think you’re successful because the margins, uh, or the pure volume of Millennial and Gen Z participation increased. It’s not clear to me yet, and maybe this data is just not available, but if, if it was Gen Z, uh, that made the substantial inroads and not Millennials, and it was the significant explosion of participation in Gen Z who are, you know, the 18 to 30 year olds now, uh, 10 years ago we would’ve been talking about Millennials. Is your sense that it was, that, that Gen Z was extremely active, but Millennials were not as active as Gen Z?

Mayer: I think it was about, I mean, millennials are now generally part of the 29 to 40 demographic, and we saw turnout on that demographic also go up. But where we were most focused and where we saw the most change is on the 18 to 29 demographic, which is now still, there’s a segment of Millennials there, but it’s now mostly Gen Z. And we saw turnout really go off the roof, off the roof and really, uh, almost matched 2018 there. So we, we are still waiting for the data, but we believe it was mostly Gen Z.

Heffner: Mindy, let me ask you have the results of the 2022 elections. Um, and I know we’re still analyzing them and they’re still being born. We, we haven’t analyzed everything yet, but have they at all impacted the way you see inclusiveness in our democracy, in, in, in thinking about how Gen Z is going to be impactful or not impactful in the future?

Romero: I mean, ultimately, no. I mean, it’s, it’s a fact, right? That young people are an important part of our voting electorate of our overall population in terms of their contributions both civically and politically. Uh, at the same time, I think if we’re talking about, you know, there’s a distinction we should make between, you know, how high was turnout and their overall voice share of, you know, of, of the pie in terms of voters and, um, whether they helped actually win races and make the difference in, for instance, the battle for control of Congress. And what we’ve seen is, and I’m sure Santiago is aware of these numbers, CIRCLE, an organization out of Tufts University, very well respected, uh, uh, puts out every election, um, their estimates of youth turnout. And so for that 18 to 29, and that’s, uh, the range that they look at. And I do think it’s important to break it down within that 18 to 24 year olds, you know, Millennial. But right now we have 18 to 29 year old data. And, uh, they’re quite excited because, um, we’re looking at 27% turnout of, of that age group, uh, participating in the midterm elections. Um, it’s a high watermark and it’s even higher in the competitive states as we would expect it to be. Um, and, and, and the idea here is through those data and through more anecdotal kind of, um, uh, assessments, you know, we’ve seen that, um, young people were out and about doing lots of things in this election. At the same time, though, I should note that of course, 27%, right, is much lower than older age groups. And when we get, uh, kind of more complete data from this current population survey, which comes out, um, next year, right? That’s the product of the census that regularly provides data across states and across age groups. We have other sources of data as well. We’ll do our own analysis at my research center. We’ll see, no matter exactly where the numbers land, right? If they’re consistent with CIRCLE, we’re gonna see huge gaps. 2030, well, depending on the election, we see 20, 30, 40 percentage points difference between 18 to 20 or four year olds, for instance, and 65 plus. And we’re gonna see huge gaps again, um, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure, right? I think we’ve seen a higher than typical turnout for young people. This selection just based on CIRCLE’s numbers, um, that’s exciting. Um, we, we, it’s all about expectations when it comes to young people, but I think we still have to note the significant gaps by age that remain and the underrepresentation that young people have in the electorate. And the, that means that’s not to, to, to be negative towards young people. That’s just the opposite. That’s to recognize the work that still needs to be done, the resources that young people still need, youth-led organizations, the work that campaigns should be doing and almost never do to outreaching to young people, and generally our society’s failure of young people to support them in the transition to voting. I just wanna note that, that there’s a positive story, but also, maybe one last thing, if I may, a lot of that support, you know, usually after every election I hear a lot of negative stories, right? Um, leading up to the election, I get a lot of media calls and ask, you know, is this gonna be the year that young people participate and make a difference? And then after the election, there’s all these stories about how young people didn’t turn out and what’s wrong with this generation, and they’re apathetic. And so much of that is based on incorrect expectations, not understanding the data or the patterns for young people when it comes to participation. And we kinda set young people up to fail in the media. I am excited that we’ve seen a number of media stories including the president of the United States come out and kind of appreciate these votes. But at the same time, I wanna note that that appreciation was because Democrats were saying, “Hey, we’re happy that you voted for us.” And of course, young people always skew more democratic, but, so it’s like recognition. But in some ways, for me, it’s a bit false of a false praise because Democrats and Republicans, both candidates and campaigns period, let down young people and not outreaching to them at the same levels as they do older voters and not talking about issues that young people care about. They reach out, but it’s often very selective. Um, and then now we hear praise, but it’s, you know, because of helping win one way or the other where we should be supporting young people in their participation period in our society, and campaigns should be doing a lot more. Period.

Heffner: Santiago, what’s your, your sense of that, um, you know, more even handed analysis or at least, uh, practically, uh, observed about the impact of young people? What’s, what’s your, what’s your sense of, of, of that, um, you know, that sort of two sides of a coin here with respect to youth participation?

Mayer: Yeah, listen, I think Mindy is exactly correct that we need to make sure that young people understand that when they’re, they vote, their voices are listened to, right? And I think I, I am very grateful to the recognition that we’ve received over the past, I wanna say week, where people have really given credit to young people for showing off at a higher than average, right? But at the same time, we need to do more and we need to continue to invest in young voters and continue to make sure that they turn out. And we’re very proud of the efforts that tomorrow that because we were really not matched by any campaign and campaigns really didn’t invest. And I think if they had, we would have been able to turn out even more young voters at the same time. I also do want to remark though, that even though turnout in young voters was lower than 2018, turnout across the board was slower than 2018.And what that really translates on is that our share of the electorate, the amount of votes that we made up compared to other generations also remain basically constant. I think it was a one point difference according to CIRCLE, which really helped Democrats in this case make sure that they did not get blown out. Because I, I believe John Della Volpe made this analysis where young voters basically canceled out every single Republican vote cast by people over 65, which is such a mind blowing, sad, because it kind of speaks us to not only how, how much higher than average Turner was, but also just how overwhelmingly democratic it was. So yes, we need to be more, and I, I, I continue to ask campaigns to invest more in young voters. I continue to ask the Democratic National Committee to do this. I really hope that Republicans would do this as well, because it is, i, I, I do not fully understand their strategy of just screaming, we should raise the voting age when they lose an election. But like, if that’s what they’re going for, I guess that’s what they’re going for. Like, I really wish that they would invest in young voters as well, because it really is a very important demographic. I mean, organization is called Voters of Tomorrow because we are the voters of tomorrow, and we’re gonna decide elections in the future and campaign should be talking to us, campaign should be investing in us. And if they don’t, they, they’re losing out on a critical chunk of the electorate.

Heffner: Uh, Santiago, what’s your sense of why the margins were, you know, and, and also the volume of youth vote were more significant in certain regions of the country than in other regions. Um, you know, that, that may be just a pure reflection of demographics. In New York, um, we know that, that as a result of gerrymandering, um, the districts were, were not as concentrated as, uh, Democratic, um, as Florida’s gerrymandering, which was concentrated more Republican. But the fact still remains that there are young people in the, as of this recording, I think five seats that Democrats lost in, in, uh, in New York. There, there are young people, there are families being raised, there are Millennials, there are, you know, Gen Z members. And, and, um, you know, it it struck me as, as rather stark contrast that that was transpiring there. Um, whereas, uh, in other parts of the country, um, you know, the, it seemed like Gen Z, um, again, in margin or in volume of the vote was were, were, were making, um, more of a difference. Any, any sense of, of why that didn’t happen in, in New York?

Mayer: Yeah, listen, I think we have a lot of data on this, and I think you can see it specifically with some battleground states as, um, Mindy was talking about where you actually have, like in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where they’re, we again, we’re still waiting for data, but it looks like, uh, young voters actually turned out at higher rates than 2018. And I think the, what we see in data is that the biggest driver for Uturn at was, uh, the right of abortion. And in competitive states and red states, it is something that people feel very tangibly because their rights are at stake, and they need to elect people who will protect them. And they can feel that if they don’t elect a democratic governor in this case, like in Pennsylvania or Michigan, that those rights would go away and they’re currently protected and they would lose them in Blue States. That is a much less tangible threat because they’re protected at the state level, and you don’t feel that threat. I mean, if you’re live in California, you can still, you still have rights, you can still go get an abortion if you need one, You can still decide what do with your own body. And that really translated to young voters not feeling the intensity of the issue to the same degree that voters in competitive or rep stage did. So that’s, again, we’re, we’re still waiting for the data. And I think that’s gonna be the phrase that I gather the most throughout this entire session because we, we simply don’t have full numbers yet, and we don’t have a complete picture. But from what we have, the main reason that we have is really the right of abortion and how it’s protected and how in states where it’s protected, young voters didn’t come out at the same rates, it’s where it’s not

Heffner: Mindy, you’re also in California. Um, is you’re reading the same or similar to Santiago’s in the sense that, um, um, states where there was a presumption of the protection of reproductive healthcare, Um, you know, were, were, were going to be, um, not as alert. Um, and, and the members of the Gen Z Generation were also not gonna be as alert in, um, in how they either turned out to vote or for whom they voted.

Romero: Yeah. Well, I’ll, I’ll take, um, maybe even more careful, uh, uh, approach to it just as a researcher, Santiago’s absolutely right. We need to wait till we get all the data. Uh, and I would say that probably for many young people, abortion was the deciding factor here. And we have a lot of exit poll information, although we all also should note how flaw it is for young people in terms of the sample quality. But, um, a lot of data that right now, immediately, right, associated with the election that says that abortion was a driving factor for many young people at the same time, I think you have to look at history of, of some of these states, uh, whether turnout was already higher previously, right, in many of these communities because they were battlegrounds dates or for other reasons. So I think what we really wanna look at is the change. How much things changed in this election cycle, and what were some of the causes? So was it abortion? Was it just more campaign dollars and resources? Was it the presence of a, of one or two or more, uh, competitive congressional districts, for instance, in California, we’ve seen a long history of, in the competitive congressional districts, youth turnout can be higher because campaigns are going for at least nearly every vote, and they’re outreaching to young people, and they’re bringing young people to the polls in ways that are not happening in other non-competitive areas. So I think there’s probably a variety of reasons, but certainly abortion is definitely one of them, it looks like, from the evidence.

Heffner: And how are you characterizing inclusiveness in our democracy today? Because we, you know, before we use the term democracy, um, I think we have to recognize that there are certain things about, um, at least the federal government and, and the constitutional system we have that are inherently anti-or undemocratic.  Um, so, you know, what are the criteria you’re using to assess how our, how inclusive or exclusive our democracy, um, is or is evolving to be?

Romero: Sure. Well, first of course, we, we all, uh, should, uh, fully grasp the, you know, if we don’t already, uh, the understanding that we started as a Republic. We’ve been, you know, through a series of legislative changes, through constitutional amendments, you know, trying to move towards the representative democracy. We’re not there yet, um, by any shape or any, any definition. Um, you know, if you look at any given election, the makeup, the demographic makeup of those who actually vote, whether it’s a high turnout or low turnout year, presidential midterm, we know that it doesn’t look like, uh, those voting, that that makeup doesn’t look like the makeup of the overall population. And for young people, young people are always underrepresented. Their share of the votes is less than their share of the population, generally overall speaking. So, um, for me, inclusivity, and if we’re talking about the electorate, one place to measure it is just simply that we get closer and maybe eventually someday have a voting electorate, the pie of people actually making decisions and selecting our elected officials and, and policymakers, that is representative of the overall population…because we know there it that matters. Because there are, there’s a difference in, right now what we have is an older wealthier white right? Um, uh, a voting electorate, um, as a whole, as a nation, and certainly in, in California. And there are policy preferences, differences in policy preferences between those that share of actual voters, right? And the population as a whole. You know, we can look at other ways to talk about inclusivity, other forms beyond the ballot box. Um, but one way is just to make sure that, um, we have an open, accessible, fully representative voting electorate, and we’re far from that. And then if you wanna talk about city councils and other, you know, in pretty much every element of our, uh, political and civic structure, um, we don’t hear the full, uh, selection or representation of voices. And it makes huge differences in terms of policy outcomes, people’s life chances in communities, right? And for young people, they’re now, right, their history for where they’re at now, right, in their life chances and in their future. Um, and it, and of course, it impacts everyone, uh, because our policy makers need to be not only fully selected by a fully representative electorate, but also they need to hear from, uh, the, the, you know, they need to hear the full needs, wants, desires, choices of everyone. And if we’re talking about young people specifically today, um, they’re not getting that, uh, and it makes big differences in terms of the, the decisions that they’re making, the quality decisions that they’re making for everybody.

Heffner: Santiago, is it not an acceptable proposition to you that, um, the, the, the more local you get in elected representation, the younger you get? Um, I mean, I think that that’s generally true when we look at these very high profile examples in the United States Congress and, and, um, the senate of, you know, the mean age being 70 something, uh, of a, of an elected office holder. I I think that it’s fair to say that that’s not reflective of the local school board. That’s not reflective of, of your mayor or your state senator. Uh, you know, certainly not in every case, um, how much younger your local electeds are compared to your congressperson or your senator? I’d like to see some data on that. I I, I really would. But we do know that the age of, of senators, not so much governors right now, but Senators and Congress, people, the age is higher than it’s ever been before. And I think that’s something on social media at least, that you, that you do tend to point out.

Mayer: Yeah, listen, I mean, I, I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the fact that we just selected the first gen member of Congress, Maxwell Frost, and we’re all very excited to have him in office at the same time. Yes, obviously we have a big issue with the h makeup of Congress not really representing, uh, young Americans. And really it’s a mix of causes. The way that we describe it is a never ending cycle where politicians don’t talk to young people, and young young people don’t feel listened to, so they don’t think their voice matters, so they don’t talk to politicians or politicians don’t talk to young people, and you just keep going around. And what we, as an organization have tried to do is really break that cycle to make sure that not only do we get more young people to see themselves in office, that’s why I think having natural <inaudible> in office is so important because it allows young people to see themselves in positions power, but also to make it so that young people feel listened to by the people in office, and they feel comfortable either talking to them or challenging them if they’re not going to listen. And what we have seen really is that over the past, I wanna say two or three cycles, we have really made progress in this urban politicians that aren’t particularly young themselves, have started to do outreach to young people because they understand that we are a critical block of their electorate, and that they need to win us if they want to continue to be in office. And we have really seen this big shift from people who might have this missed young pe young people overall, but especially like young activists and young advocates before really starting to engage us now and really become, uh, allies to young people and to push our priorities within Congress. So, yes, obviously it is very, there is a very large difference in how difficult it is to win a local election to city council, or even through like your state legislature as a young person, in large part, because running a national, a congressional or a senatorial campaign takes lots of money. And, you know, one thing about young people is we don’t have a lot of it. Uh, so it’s obviously easier to run at the local level, but even at the national level, we do see this movement towards young people, and we are very excited about it. And I’m sure in 2024, we’re gonna have even more Gen Z candidates to join Maxwell Cross. And as we continue to forward, we’re really gonna see really a youth wave wash over Congress.

Heffner: And of course, the Supreme Court is, is generally a, an older body too. Um, it’s been, yeah, motivated by, by, um, the politics of, of longevity to want to start to appoint younger members of that body. Um, you know, theoretically you could have a Millennial, um, serving on the Supreme Court. Justice Jackson’s not quite a millennial, um, but you could have a, a, a millennial appointed by, uh, President Biden or whoever might succeed President Biden. Mindy, in, in this sense, there’s the difference between the appearance of inclusiveness in our politics, and let’s not focus on the democracy. I understand it’ll never quite be direct democracy. My my point is more about the inclusiveness as manifested in economic policies to Santiago’s point about, um, the unprecedented disparities of wealth in this country by age and by gender and by, uh, race in particular. But there, there is the difference between the appearance of inclusiveness with, with Congressman Frost, Congressman-elect, Frost, Congresswoman Ocasio Cortez, and then the reality of inclusiveness, which has to be felt as a result of…in, in, in, in, you know, data that you study. Yeah. And so, you know, when I ask about the criteria or the characteristics of inclusive, uh, an inclusive society, um, that’s really what I’m interested in, in, in understanding from you, when, when can we see something that is inclusive and how will we know it’s inclusive? Not, not by looking at it, but by seeing how people are feeling, how they’re getting by, what work they’re in, uh, how they’re part of participating in civic life.

Romero: Sure. Social, economic, environmental outcomes, life chances. Yeah. So, you know, it, there’s layers to this, of course, in a more, in a longer, more nuanced conversation. But certainly if we don’t have, um, a representative electorate, right? We’re, we’re, we’re likely never not going to see any of those changes in policy. So that’s, that’s the first step, right? And we’re long ways to go there, but you are absolutely right, of course, that even amongst our elected officials, uh, who whatever the shape of the electorate that put them into office, they rarely, our electoral system is designed really to discourage, uh, elected officials and policy makers from only listening to those that elected them, so they and their constituents. So they may listen to those that elected them, the actual voters, the people that they have to get to reelect them again, next cycle around. They’re probably not gonna listen as much to non-voters realistically. But then there are a whole host of other actors that impact the decisions that policy makers and elected officials make, right? They’re donors, which almost always swing, uh, older, for instance, right? And wealthy, obviously wealthier and wider. Um, and there’s other key influencers, right? And now in the social media world, you can have those other groups be anywhere in the country. And it’s part of what we see now in, you know, for instance, in Congress, right? Very loud voices that are using the sound sound bites, right? To get attention, to get, um, donors to, to get leverage, um, sometimes things other states totally outside their own district’s boundaries. Um, so ultimately all of this work is about outcomes. Anybody, I don’t wanna speak for Santiago, but I’m assuming for Santiago, the bottom line for him is a set of policies. A world, right? Well, a nation and, and communities within it that have better outcomes for young people, right? And I think everyone that I know that works in this space is connects it to outcomes, better social, economic, environmental outcomes, but we’re not gonna get there unless we work at, and all of the areas under the democracy umbrella that all kind of are intertwined, right? That lead to that, um, the electorate, the shape of the electorate is part of it, but only one part of it. Um, and having our elected officials actually function to fully represent people, um, you know, there’s a lot, but just… So through my lens, I’m a nonpartisan researcher, so I wanna make that clear, right? So it’s not specific policies this way or that way, but if that the policies that are adopted and ultimately the outcomes that come from that, um, are, uh, representative of the people’s right interest needs and how you measure, that’s very difficult, especially in a highly polarized world, especially in in districts that Right. Have people have fluctuating in, in conflicting needs. I think I wanna see an electorate that is engaged at every level that is voting, that we have high turnout instead of the historically low turn that we have compared to the other established democracies around the world. And I wanna see an electorate and a citizenry and a and people who live here, period, whether you’re a citizen or not, actively engaged politically and civically, holding our elected officials accountable, holding themselves accountable, tracking voting people in, voting people out because of their records, and intimately being involved as much as possible in, in decision making processes. That’s, that’s going to your city council, that’s writing, that’s protesting, that is all sorts of other ways that us as researchers don’t measure, but that irrelevant in salient in communities how they define civic engagement, how they define what is important to them. And they believe, and they, the lack of disconnect, which is incredibly high right now, is hopefully significantly, uh, narrowed and people feel connected to the civic political world and that they have a voice and they have an ability to affect real change.

Heffner: Thank you. Thank you, Mindy. Thank you Santiago. Appreciate the conversation.

Romero: Thank you.

Mayer: Thank you.