Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Nine younger voters tell The Post what 2024 candidates should focus on

Nine younger voters tell The Post what 2024 candidates should focus on


(Illustration by Cece Pascual/The Washington Post; Billie Auberry; Sam Cole; Minh Connors/The Washington Post; Kadyn Reid; Christina Boothe)

Next year’s national elections could be consequential for millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, and members of Generation Z, people born between 1997 and 2012. The generations combined are on track to make up roughly 40 percent of U.S. voters, and their vote could decisively impact election outcomes.

Over the last decade, issues like abortion, gun violence and the climate crisis have emerged as key priorities of younger voters, according to a survey by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University after the 2022 midterms. Those topics also matched some of the concerns expressed in interviews, most from a Washington Post social callout this summer asking younger voters what issues they wanted candidates for political office — from state and local offices to the presidency — to address in 2024. Other issues included health care costs, campaign finance reform, supporting small businesses, stagnant wages for essential workers and more.

Their responses offer a sampling of views: most leaned left or didn’t identify with a party. Some individuals are politically active, working in groups centered on youth organizing or running for office. Others are trying to make a living fighting wildfires or operating their own market research company. All said their responses were based on their personal experiences.

Sam Cole, a software engineer in Massachusetts, is worried about economic stability and the fentanyl crisis unraveling his hometown. “The issues that I brought up is just the stuff that’s most salient in my life,” he told The Post. “It’s the stuff that I sort of, you know, feel with my heart and see with my eyes.”

While younger voters have typic ally turned out to vote at lower rates than older generations, that gap is beginning to narrow. Between 2014 and 2018, turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds increased by 16 percentage points and among 30- to 44-year-olds increased 13 percentage points. In 2020, high voter turnout among younger voters continued: 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds turned out compared to just 44 percent in 2016 while 63 percent of 30- to 39-year-olds turned out compared to just 56 percent. Turnout dropped among younger voters in 2022 compared to 2018, at 26 percent turnout for 18-29 and 38 percent for 30-39 — still historically high for a midterm election, which typically produces a lower turnout rate than general elections. These numbers are from The Post’s analysis of data released by the census after every election.

The impact of their increased participation and the issues they prioritized was most recently demonstrated in the 2o22 midterms. Younger voters were galvanized by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and in key battleground states were credited with helping stem a “red wave” pundits had predicted, with Democrats retaining control of the Senate and Republicans narrowly winning the House.

Several of the people we spoke to described multiple issues as inherently connected. The effects of climate change, some said, affect health care, job growth and transportation. Reproductive rights were one domino among many relating to gender equality, one student said. And a former wildland firefighter placed his concerns at the center of a web of issues like wage stagnation, inflation and a rapidly heating planet.

​​ “The age of the single issue voter is quickly going away,” Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), a Gen Z member of Congress, told The Post when asked about engagement among younger voters. “A huge part of that is because young people tend to view issues not in the traditional silos that most folks in politics may be used to. They like to connect the issues and they see how these issues inherently work with each other to create the conditions that we’re in.”

How candidates talk about these issues and their policy positions with younger voters will be paramount as younger voters make up more of the electorate and shift to the left. According to a poll released by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School earlier this year, 18- to 29-year-olds have shifted significantly over the past 10 years for government intervention in curbing climate change, issues of poverty, health care, gun laws and same-sex marriage.

“You can collapse each of those [issues] into even a bigger or broader issue, which is the concern about basic freedoms and rights being questioned or under attack, or outright taken away,” said John Della Volpe, polling director at Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.

“I think that in large measure is really what young people are going to be grappling with in ’24,” Della Volpe said.

Akshara Santoshkumar, 18, in Fairfax, Va.

Akshara Santoshkumar will never forget as a kid being evacuated out of Cairo in 2011 by her parents’ employer, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, when the country was in the throes of the Arab Spring. She listed off more memories, like how the family eventually relocated to Dubai. And she remembers years later, when she was in grade school there, seeing the 2016 U.S. presidential election on every TV screen and teachers of every nationality keeping tally of votes. “I think we were all cognizant that this would define the rest of our lives,” she said, and one consequence of that was the question of reproductive rights.

Born in the United States, Santoshkumar returned to Northern Virginia in 2019 and four years later the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. “As a woman and as a woman of color, my rights are directly impacted and I firmly believe that abortion should be protected at a larger level,” she said.

As a self-proclaimed progressive liberal, any candidate she backs in 2024 must commit to protecting abortion rights nationally because the fight isn’t just about women’s bodily autonomy. “Young people understand that abortion is kind of like the first domino to fall under the issue of just equality,” she said. “I think young people have kind of woken up and they’ve realized that their rights are, like, under attack.”

Santoshkumar, who currently attends Barnard College, Columbia University, spoke with reverence of the democratic process that she used to only see from afar, but is now able to participate in. With those basic rights on her mind, she registered to vote and cast a ballot in the state’s June primary. “Being able to vote for the first time was really special,” she said.

Sam Cole, 30, in Fitchburg, Mass.

Sam Cole lives in a community that sits an hour northwest of Boston, where the heartbreaking effects of economic instability are evident. “There’s a lot of towns like this in New England,” he said. “It’s one of these old mill towns that 100 years ago, you know, was prospering. But it’s kind of like a shell of itself now.” As an independent, he wants to hear 2024 candidates focus on their challenges.

“I think there’s a lot of frustrated young people that are my in my situation, that are sort of post-college, young working professionals that want to have their own home,” he said. High mortgage rates have left many feeling like “the finish line keeps sprinting ahead,” and is destroying peoples’ faith in the system.

Cole said he was laid off once but considered he and his family, who own their home, lucky for getting back on their feet so quickly. Still, he’s deeply concerned about inflation and its effect on the kind of capital needed to sustain the tech sector he has worked in for much of his professional life. Since the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, he said, “the jobs in tech are taking a beating.”

Cole has also seen the scourge of addiction, particularly fentanyl, that has filled the void left by the economic ruin in some communities. Church has always been a big part of his life, he said, so he has volunteered to help how he can. In doing that, he has seen how drugs have ravaged people and it haunts him. “I work with youth,” he said, “and just knowing that some of them are going to — one day someone’s just going to give them a needle or a pill, it’s just brutal.”

Davin Faris, 18, in Frederick, Md.

“Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world,” Faris said, reciting a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “To Begin With, The Sweet Grass,” a favorite. He said it paints a great picture of his connection to nature and the environment. He enjoys writing, martial arts and playing his great-grandfather’s handed-down Epiphone guitar. But his life’s work is about stopping climate change and he has volunteered with Sunrise Movement, a group that focuses on the issue.

There’s no question climate change is the most important topic for the coming election for Faris, who said he’s a progressive, has worked as a congressional intern and was accepted to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. Any candidate who wants his vote must address it each day they campaign. “It affects virtually every other topic that you can name,” he said, “whether it’s health care or just job growth or transportation or anything else that people say that they care about.”

Faris, who lives with his family on a farm that focuses on sustainability and regeneration, pointed to instances of severe flooding in his region the last several years and the smoke from the Canadian wildfires that recently affected the area’s air quality. CIRCLE’s 2022 poll showed climate change as one of the prime concerns among young people, which tracks with Faris’s own assessment. “I think climate change is the issue that my generation will have to suffer with more than anything else,” he said.

Too few leaders are listening to young peoples’ call to curb the use of fossil fuels that are packing carbon into the atmosphere, he said. “I think it’s kind of very necessary that our politicians treat the crisis that we’re in as a crisis,” he said, “and it’s something that needs to be not its own discrete conversation, but included in everything else they’re talking about.”

Cherie Animashaun, 18, Skokie, Ill.

Cherie Animashaun noticed something about several of the students at her elementary school who ended up in juvenile detention: they came from unstable homes, had no mentors and lacked encouragement from adults. It inspired her to do something about education. “What I’ve been trying to do right now is bring students to the forefront,” said the Cornell University freshman.

Putting students first and focusing on the needs of young people is also a core part of who Animashaun will vote for next year. “I’m definitely looking for the candidate who will make a firm decision on preserving education for all people, she said. She’s noticed politicians who speak on things she cares about and reaches young people where they are, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Frost. Tennessee state representative Justin Pearson (D), who risked his seat for young victims of gun violence and showed “the true heart of a politician,” has gained her admiration.

Animashaun, who said her Christian faith is the center of her life, has been engaged in social causes from a young age. She started a nonprofit in 2021 called Her Rising Initiative that she said educates around 200 girls a year in aspects of leadership, the legal system and women’s rights. She also wrote her first book with the help of mentors when she was 12, a curriculum text titled “Growing With God,” and then authored the “Compass” book series, which features mini lessons about setting goals and harnessing the energy to reach them.

She got involved in politics, she said, to help push for the changes in this country — and education is the key. She hopes improving and diversifying the curriculum can prepare children to make more informed decisions about today’s biggest problems as they become adults. “If we’re not properly educated,” she said, “then we won’t be able to tackle those branches and those barriers.”

Joe Ybarra, 33, in Indianapolis, Ind.

Joe Ybarra can’t understand why some essential workers — particularly ones with the U.S. Forest Service — aren’t being compensated properly while risking so much. “When a wildfire is heading towards a town out west, I mean, you want there to be professionals over there being able to stop it,he said. A lot of the wildland firefighters, especially seasonal, are pretty much homeless. They’re living in their trucks, their cars, their RVs throughout the season if their duty station doesn’t have sleeping quarters.”

Ybarra, who is a firefighter in an engine house in southwest Indianapolis and has a background in teaching, tried that seasonal work — which he said can go from May until October and sometimes longer — in Nevada and Idaho. He considered making the move permanent, but couldn’t square his financial needs with the wages being offered. And it wasn’t just the pay of seasonal workers that turned him off. “A lot of them don’t have health insurance as they’re going out to fight these fires as well,” he said, adding that the Federal Employees Health Benefit, or FEHB, was problematic.

The result, Ybarra said, has been a shrinking workforce because of burnout and shortages affecting leadership, who end up lacking the experience they once had. There have been some positive developments in addressing the problem. But without more reforms, “hiring and retaining the permanent wildland firefighting workforce we need will continue to be challenging,” the U.S. Fire Service told The Post in an email.

“This is pretty important because, you know, these wildfires out West are getting more intense,” Ybarra said. And while the issue he wants candidates to talk about centers on fair wages and the dignity of work, much of the problem has its ties in climate change too. “The fire seasons are lasting longer,” he said, “I mean, heck, all of us have been indirectly affected by the wildfires up in Canada.”

Ybarra considers himself a centrist and in 2024 he’ll be listening for candidates’ solutions for recruiting new wildland firefighters and make sure they get better pay and benefits to ensure the at-risk communities out West get the protection they need.

SarahBeth Boothe, 21, College Station, Tex.

When SaraBeth Boothe thinks about her opposition to abortion, she thinks of her older sister, who needs lifelong special needs care because of an intellectual disability, a condition that wasn’t discovered until well after she was born. Some women, however, do discover an abnormality through prenatal screening early on and face a difficult decision about continuing with the pregnancy, one that includes health or financial concerns. Boothe believes that segment of women who are deciding to end the pregnancy should reconsider.

She has rejected the argument by some that intellectual disabilities or other special needs don’t belong in the discussion about abortion. “We’re completely devaluing their life,” she said. Because of that, she feels it’s the most salient aspect of the topic and one that conservative politicians should lean into. “I would love to hear candidates bring up the special needs community and get them involved,” she said is a way to earn her vote.

Boothe said nobody in her family has pushed her to choose left or right when casting a ballot, but she considers herself a conservative. She has turned to mainstream news sources like The Post or the New York Times, then sought the perspectives of political commentators Ben Shapiro or Candace Owens. Being “open minded and well-rounded” is important when weighing issues, she said, and has discussed these topics with friends on the left.

A world without her sister is too much to contemplate for Boothe. She loves people she said and especially enjoys working with disabled children, who can often be ignored. “When I become a mother and I get married, I want to adopt more children with special needs,” she said. “I just absolutely adore them.”

Ultimately, Boothe believes life begins at conception and that there’s danger in “changing the definition of something so vital. She urged candidates to stand up for that perspective next year.What’s true has consistently been true,” she said.

George Heller, 18, in Los Altos, Calif.

When George Heller talked about the health care system in the United States, he thought of two family members who had to get MRI’s for serious medical conditions and how much stress that brought. While his family was able to absorb the cost, it left him dwelling on the worst-case scenarios others face. “I can’t, like, even imagine being in a position where we have to decide between saving our parents lives and paying the bills,” he said. “Like, I can’t imagine that.”

“If you’re in a job that doesn’t provide you insurance and you need lifesaving surgery, then what are you going to do?” he asked.

This freshman at George Washington University, who considers himself a Democrat, doesn’t mince words on his dissatisfaction with the health care system and the solutions he wants to hear from candidates. “The fact that that exists in the richest country in the world really, really bothers me,” he said. “It’s hard enough to deal with issues like a parent facing a life-threatening illness. It shouldn’t be made harder by affordability.”

“I know, like there are tons of things you can do and there are tons of things like presidential candidates talk about that they can’t do on their own,” he said. Heller partly drew insights on the topic from his experience on Rep. Anna G. Eshoo’s (D-Calif.) student advisory board, where he focused on health care. “Having a divided Congress makes that really hard. But there are certainly things that we can do that we aren’t doing right now. So I want them to be talking about things like price caps. I want them to be talking about patent restrictions.”

I would love to have a system where everyone in the country has free health care at no restrictions, but that’s just not possible with the way our country works right now,” Heller said.

Brandon Andrews, 37, in Washington, D.C.

Brandon Andrews learned a lot about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and Black Wall Street after he came to Oral Roberts University to study international relations. He noted how, as a testament to human ingenuity and perseverance, Black people in Tulsa tried to resurrect the Greenwood neighborhood in the years after the riot and make Black Wall Street even bigger, before it was eventually disrupted by a highway project. “I feel like I take some of that Black Wall Street, some of that Greenwood legacy with me as an entrepreneur,” he said.

As an independent, Andrews said he believes in the power of the market and isn’t interested in the government picking winners and losers. But he wants candidates to talk more about how they’re going to support small businesses and microbusiness, especially since the disruption of the pandemic as well as the changes that have occurred over the past several decades. “I’ve seen over and over again just a mismatch between businesses or entrepreneurs like myself and the kinds of businesses we’re starting and the kinds of resources that are available from the federal government,” said Andrews, who’s a senior consultant for a company linked to ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

Opportunity has appeared in many places for Andrews, who not only owns a pair of businesses, but has also gotten involved in nonprofit work and the DC Commission on Fashion, Arts, and Events, as detailed on his professional website. On the older end of the people interviewed, he hailed his generation and those younger for stepping up with entrepreneurial spirit. But he often thinks about what effort is put into ensuring their businesses have a path of success open to them.

“How do we put them on a track to ensure that they grow and hire so we have all these positive economic effects that the people like to talk about when they talk about small business?” he said.

Samuel Cao, 18, in Mason, Ohio

Sam Cao fondly remembers his mother dragging him to the final debate between Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. James B. Renacci (R-Ohio) in 2018 at Miami University of Ohio when he was younger. “I really loved the energy of the crowd,” he said, and as an eighth grader discovered more appreciation for the issues being discussed than he ever had before. “I used to think of politics as a hobby,” he said. “So I would say, sorry, I don’t do politics, but I realized that’s more of a very privileged thing to say.”

After covid caused a teacher shortage at William Mason High School where he attended and forced it to close, he looked to his statehouse representative for help. Paul Zeltwinger (R), “one of the most absentee members of the state house,” was part of a supermajority corrupted by gerrymandering and special interests, Cao said. So he decided to run for the seat as a Democrat.

His candidacy caught the attention of local news and caused a stir. And while he lost the primary with 30 percent of the vote, he said the experience taught him a lot about running for office, made him an expert in Ohio politics and opened his eyes to the need for campaign finance reform.

“When I talk about campaign finance reform to them,” Cao said of his peers, “I also talk about just how getting that resolved or reformed is going to help with just winning on the education issue or the reproductive rights issue.” For him, a solution to that problem is the keystone to so many of the problems his fellow Democrats want to fix. “So climate, education, reproductive rights, criminal justice, all those things, they — none of that really can be reformed or change without the proper campaign guidelines,” he said.

His mother, Hongmei Li, has been an associate professor of strategic communications at Miami University since 2015 according to LinkedIn and before that at Georgia State University in Atlanta, a hub of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. “She definitely played a large role in just like my activism,” he said, describing how racist views associated with the coronavirus triggered her involvement in the anti-Asian hate crimes awareness movement in Cincinnati, where she spoke at National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.



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