Gen Z’s Take: Election Year Voter Roundtable

Jessica Sutter , Chief of Civic Learning Initiatives

April 12, 2024

The Institute for Citizens & Scholars conducted a first-of-its-kind survey, The Civic Outlook of Young Adults in America, that sheds light on Gen Z’s civic knowledge, civic engagement, and commitment to democracy.

What we found: Young people are dissatisfied with the political system and pessimistic about democracy. They lack critical civic knowledge and trust in government institutions and are less likely to vote in the 2024 election than the general population. Yet respondents showed a lower degree of polarization, are proud to be American, reject political violence, and collectively prioritize democratic values. Gen Z has great potential and motivation to help strengthen our democracy, but it’s up to us – the older generations – to talk to, learn from, and collaborate with them.

Jessica Sutter, Chief of Civic Learning Initiatives, spoke with two Gen Zers to get their thoughts and perspectives not only on voting and candidates in a presidential election year but our democracy at large. Trenton Eilander is a student at the University of Iowa, a Legislative Clerk at the Iowa State Capitol, and a Ronald Reagan Civic Leaders Fellow. Diya Bardwell is a student at Syracuse University and an intern with the League of Women Voters of D.C. Below is an edited excerpt from the conversation.

Jessica Sutter: Our findings showed that a third of young adults are not currently active in any community organization or club and don’t have an intention to participate civically or politically in elections in 2024. They say things like, “no, I’m not going to put a yard sign out, I’m not going to campaign for a candidate.” And I’m curious, does that resonate for you? Does that sound like things you’ve heard from peers? And what do you think might be contributing to this disengagement? What can we do about it?

Diya Bardwell: Personally, I resonate with that a lot. I think being a DC resident and not having congressional representation especially plays a lot into that. And I think this is not only something that DC has been a big issue, but also nationally, the idea that young people don’t have a voice and that even if there are systems put in place to help engage that voice is that it doesn’t really matter. And a lot of times, especially in classes or just communicating with college students on campus, a lot of the time they blame it on certain aspects of our political system. So one that I’ve heard a lot is the Electoral College where they just don’t believe that that accurately represents their voice and no matter what they do, no matter which way they vote, that it has no impact.

Trenton Eilander: Well, that’s a big question and I promise to keep my answer very short. But when I think about this, I think about our founding fathers that they believe that a nation of unimaginable source of prosperity could guide an individual, a loving family, and a caring government to allow freedom to fill our atmosphere in all the best ways possible. I think about younger people such as myself – they have to be encouraged about their passion for a community issue to get involved. When I think about that, that’s the number one reason that I think, and I share that within people that I clerk with the Iowa House and people in my community.

“Even if there are systems put in place to help engage [Gen Z’s] voice, it doesn’t really matter. A lot of the time, they blame it on certain aspects of our political system. One I’ve heard a lot is the Electoral College, where they just don’t believe it accurately represents their voice. That no matter what they do or which way they vote, it has no impact.”

Diya Bardwell
Diya Bardwell

Jessica Sutter: Another thing we heard from young people in the survey is that they feel like one of the main hurdles to getting involved politically is that they don’t feel well-informed. How do you think we should be helping you and your peers feel like you have the knowledge and information you need to feel confident engaging politically?

Trenton Eilander: Yeah, for me, I would think about four things. First thing is that you need to get information from places other than social media that can really trigger very fast and it can go both ways. It can go good or it can go bad. Second is distrust of government might come from other social media posts. So making sure that your sources are reliable. Three, I would say learn how to find and use different information sources, which they teach us how to do in college when we’re doing a research paper or so forth, making sure that our sources are reliable when it comes to policy and legislation coming down the aisle. And then number four, I would just say must be motivated to do so. So I would say today’s civic knowledge is believed to allow opinions to guide character, but it should also allow character to influence public opinions.

“Young people like myself have to be encouraged about their passion for a community issue to get involved.”

Trenton Eilander
Trenton Eilander

Jessica Sutter: We found that over half of Gen Z isn’t registered with either major political party in the U.S. What impact do you think that’s going to have on the upcoming election and are there ways that the existing political parties, either the major two or third parties could better be connecting with Gen Z about what’s on your mind?

Diya Bardwell: There are definitely a lot of systematic issues that are present within our current electoral system, and I think that stems from pretty much every level. I think that a lot of times when we’re talking about engagement, we see that as volunteering within a candidate’s particular party or whether that’s the party directly or the campaign directly. But I think a lot of what gets missed in that, and I think at least in my personal experience and the people that I’ve directly communicated with, is that there is a great disconnect between volunteering and physically being there, present, and actually feel like you’re being heard. I could show up to volunteer for a campaign and realize that I don’t necessarily feel like this particular person or party represents me on every level. And I think that the fact that it is so closed off to discourse, even if you are continuously engaged, is a really big issue.

I think that people have a lot of really, really great opinions on policies, and I definitely believe those should be heard, but it feels like a struggle to even get into that space in the first place. So physically being there and being involved doesn’t always equate to being heard or being understood. And I think that a lot of Gen Z, again, this is just personal opinion and the way people that I’ve interacted with, but that has been a really big theme of I feel like I’m doing a lot to get engaged, but I still don’t feel like I’m ever being heard for what my opinions are.

Jessica Sutter: Our survey showed a really interesting contrast where 70% of the young adults who responded said, they’re proud to be American. And I’ll say, I thought that was both heartening and higher than I thought, but 57% are dissatisfied with how they see our democracy right now. How do those findings land for you? What do you think might be possible to help young people feel more optimistic about our democracy?

Diya Bardwell: I think this really plays into my previous answer about how we’re able to evolve as a society, recognizing that you might be dissatisfied with the way your government is currently run and need to be dissatisfied with a certain part of it, but recognize the great lengths that we can go, the fact that we have the ability to move forward and we have the ability to make ourselves better and do that every year and do that in every election cycle. And I think that’s at least where I can personally relate to that, where I can say, yes, I’m not satisfied with this and this in our democratic processes and in our legislative processes. However, there’s also this and this that are really, really great. We are a democratic society and we’ll continue to be a democratic society, and it’s the way we’re able to evolve from that dissatisfaction. I think that leads to a lot of that optimism.

Trenton Eilander: I would say that politicians or people elected to office, probably a better phrase, should focus on fewer negative comments about the opposition and the opposing party’s views and more on what’s positive about their own vision that they would like to see the government change and why they should be supported by voting. That’s what I would say.

“People elected to office should focus on fewer negative comments about the opposition and more on what’s positive about their own vision.”

Trenton Eilander
Trenton Eilander

Jessica Sutter: How optimistic do you both feel? I mean, Diya, you shared a little bit that there’s a way you might frame optimism, but do you feel optimistic?

Diya Bardwell: I do. I think that there are a lot of really great things about America and about the way our democracy is structured. I just think that we have a not-so-great history, and I think that there are ways to improve it, which help slowly correct those mistakes. And in every society, you’re going to see mistakes. That’s just how the way government works. And I think that the biggest part of American democracy is the way we’re able to correct those mistakes. And I think for that reason, I’m particularly optimistic.

Trenton Eilander: I would say for me – very optimistic about the next generation, my generation. President Ronald Reagan told us that the best days are yet to come, that we are a shining city on the hill. I fully believe that, fully support the statement. I have it actually hanging on my wall right up there. You may not be able to see it, but it’s hanging up there. And so I read that every day when I go to work. But I think also it’s important to be optimistic because as young leaders, we need to celebrate the journey and not the finish line. I think that’s a very valuable statement that I actually have in my notebook when I take notes going to Bible studies, church on Sundays, that when we celebrate the journey, we’re able to understand the person that we sacrifice in order to achieve something great. And that’s what every great leader has done before us.

“Recognize the great lengths that we can go…the fact that we have ability to move forward and make ourselves better and do that every year, every election cycle. I can say yes, I’m not satisfied with our democratic and legislative processes. It’s the way we’re able to evolve from that dissatisfaction that leads to a lot of that optimism.”

Diya Bardwell
Diya Bardwell

Jessica Sutter: What can generations older than yours do to make sure that Gen Z voices are not only heard but taken seriously in policy discussions and political decision-making, especially that which directly impacts you and your peers?

Diya Bardwell: I think the biggest thing is having conversations like these. I think sitting down and taking the time to truly listen and have conversations where we talk about the struggles that Gen Z might be going through, the solutions to that and how we can practically implement that. I think there are a lot of situations where there’s maybe some spaces, but there’s no action being taken from it or there’s no follow up. And I think that is really the biggest thing is listening to those conversations and listening to the people in Gen Z for specifically issues that impact us the most. And then making that a reality of saying, this is what I’m hearing from this. This is how I can take my knowledge as someone who’s been through this process and this is how we can implement it for future generations.

Learn more: The Civic Outlook of Young Adults in America

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