Will Sutton: A strong democracy needs youth participation

Dillard University senior Bre’On Perkins marched with a couple of dozen students from the Gentilly campus to the Norman Mayer Library to cast their votes late Tuesday morning. Perkins, 21, was determined to be heard.

Youth voters 18-29 years old had an impact and made a difference with the midterm election. 

Perkins, a Dallas native, has been watching results influenced by her peer voters and thinking about her future.

More than three-fourths of 18-29 year-old voters chose the Democratic Arizona incumbent and 63% cast ballots for the Democratic Georgia incumbent. The Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate won with 70% of young voters. 

Perkins has seen history made.

Maryland elected an African American governor, the first in the state’s history and only the third in the nation. Youth played a role. For the first time in each state, voters in Arkansas, Massachusetts and New York selected women to lead them as governor. Youth played a role. In Florida, one congressional district elected a member of the Gen Z generation — generally those aged 12-26 — to represent the area in the U.S. Congress. He’s 25.

Bogalusa made news, and history, too. The Washington Parish community has 11,000 residents. With a field of four mayoral candidates, Bogalusa voters selected 23-year-old Tyrin Truong.

According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, young people “had one of their highest turnout rates ever in a midterm and shaped results across the country.” The day after Tuesday’s election, the center said “27% of young people (ages 18-29) turned out to vote in the 2022 midterm election.” It was the second-highest turnout rate for young people in a midterm in 30 years, surpassed only in 2018 with 31%.

The center cited national election pool data indicating that 13% of all votes cast in the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections were cast by young people. This election season, young people were 12% of those who voted. In Louisiana, the percentage is 11%.

Xavier University sociology professor and pollster Silas Lee cautioned me to consider these numbers as we consider other voter groups.

Recently, he said key issues stimulating youth voters were the women’s right to choose and student debt relief. A few years ago, he said, it was a person: Barack Obama. And don’t forget Bernie Sanders. Still, Lee said, youthful voters also care about economic mobility and health care. He said the right candidates with cross-over appeal help.

Maxwell Frost in Florida and Tyrin Truong in Bogalusa were fired up and decided to run. Frost was a 2012 Obama volunteer. He also fought against corporate greed with Occupy Wall Street and advocated for gun laws. Truong was upset about rising crime and he’s tired of that defining his community.

Like Perkins, Frost and Truong, Andrew Young was young when he worked with Martin Luther King Jr. He was engaged; politics came later.

During a Dillard event promoting the book “The Many Lives of Andrew Young” by journalist Ernie Suggs, the former United Nations ambassador talked about his historic career as a world leader, a U.S. congressman from Georgia, an Atlanta mayor and a civil rights leader. He told students about a day King gathered his group of young lieutenants and told them they needed to keep up the fight for civil rights in the streets but they also needed to move into politics, to push for change inside. 

Young was a part of significant changes, including the identification of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for expansion and continuous growth. The airport is the state’s largest employer with an economic impact in the billions. He, former Mayor Maynard Jackson and others were a part of the political system, and the airport became an international example with lots of big Black business contracts and lots of Black folks making good livings at the airport. 

Perkins was in the audience. A criminal justice major, she plans to go to law school and help fight for social justice as she builds a legal career and helps change things through politics. Listening to Young, she believes she can become a civil court judge and move up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Perkins asked Young for advice, and the icon gave a simple answer: “Take it one day at a time.”

She sometimes feels overwhelmed when things don’t change fast enough. Inspired by Young, she realized “the world’s not going to change in a day.” But she’s determined to change the world in years to come.

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