Gen Z's political power: new data gives insight into America's youngest voters
For 19-year-old Jenna Ruiz, voting for the first time was a thrill.
"My group of friends and I were really excited," Ruiz said, a sophomore at Miami Dade College who serves as student government president.
Ruiz and her friends are just a few of the millions of young Americans newly eligible to vote in the 2022 midterms.
Still, that excitement didn't smooth over some of the uncertainty Ruiz experienced when it came time to actually cast her ballot.
"I felt, I'm not going to lie, a little bit lost on some of the things that were on the ballot," Ruiz told NPR. She said she was mostly motivated to vote because she disagreed with the conservative social policies of Florida's current Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who ended up winning reelection.
"I do identify more towards the Democratic Party, but I still felt like I didn't really know everything that was on the ballot," Ruiz added. "I just was excited to vote."
Ruiz is part of Generation Z, which is still just getting its feet wet in politics, since the oldest members of the generation turn 26 this year. Along with millennials, Gen Zers turned out in historically high numbers for a midterm election, second only to the 2018 election.
And while Gen Zers voted decidedly with Democrats last year — and say they were most concerned about issues related to abortion — some still wish they were better informed before voting. That's all according to a new post-election report on Gen Z from the education advocacy organization Murmuration, the Walton Family Foundation and the public opinion firm SocialSphere.
The report, which contains a national survey conducted shortly after the election, was exclusively obtained by NPR. It also found that Gen Z primarily relies on social media for news instead of more traditional media platforms — raising questions for strategists and organizers alike over how to engage the country's youngest adults in politics.
Gen Z wants more information about who they're voting for
Ruiz isn't alone in feeling unsure about some of the additional names on her ballot.
According to SocialShere's survey data, one-third of Gen Z voters wished they had known more about the candidates and their positions in the last election — compared to 21% of Millenials, 11% of members of Generation X and 6% of Baby Boomers.
Similarly, just half of Gen Z voters say they were confident about every race on their ballot — and a third voted in every race but admitted to not knowing much about some candidates.
To John Della Volpe, the founder of SocialSphere and the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, this gap in understanding is an important insight.
"Often I think we take for granted that younger people who, by definition, have less experience, are every bit as equipped to cast a ballot as their parents, their grandparents," he said, "who have been thinking, debating and participating in this for decades longer."
And while individual voters have a duty to seek out some civic information, Della Volpe argues, there's also a collective community responsibility within politics and outside of it, like in the workplace, at school, among family and on social media.
But to some young organizers, that exposed lack of confidence doesn't mean less enthusiasm and interest.
"Yes, maybe you didn't know everything you needed to. Every single fact about the candidate that you were voting for. But the fact that you voted, means that you cared about it enough to show up anyways," said Marianna Pecora, a leader with the youth-led political organization Voters of Tomorrow.
Like Della Volpe, Pecora, 19, says there needs to be a more considerable community-wide change to help increase civics and political interest, both online and in person.
Though others have less sympathy. To 20-year-old Nyla Branam, Gen Z needs to make more of an effort — especially since they've spent their entire lives with access to advanced technology.
"People in my age group would rather just fill in a bubble and show up, then take time to actually research and find out who they're voting for because it's not beneficial and it's not an assignment," Branam said.
Branam is a student at Delaware State University, a historically Black college. On top of not knowing enough about politics, it frustrates her that some people at her school don't vote — especially when so many are passionate about issues like police and criminal justice reform.
"The local elections, the presidential elections, all those things matter because when your friend does get locked up, you know what judge they're going to. And that representative was picked based on morals and values that align to yours," Branam explained.
A majority of Gen Z gets their news from social media
Gen Z stands alone from older generations in how they consume news, according to the same SocialSphere survey data.
Among Gen Zers who said they wanted more information ahead of voting, 36% say they would turn to the internet to get it, compared to 12% who specifically say social media.
But when asked to select sources they regularly go to for news or current events, social media companies were at the top of the list.
YouTube leads with Gen Zers at 61%, followed by TikTok (57%), Instagram (51%), Snapchat (43%), Twitter (35%) and Facebook (33%.) Traditional media sources, including local television and major network and cable news networks, are much lower on the list — between 25-22%.
Gen Z has a particular hold on TikTok and uses it far more than Millennials do. Among Millennials, just under a third list TikTok as a regular source of news, instead, over half flock to Facebook and YouTube.
For Alex Ames, a leading organizer with the group Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, using social media as a primary news source can be limiting.
"A 15-second TikTok or so might give you some glimpse of some of the problems you care about," Ames, 20, said, "but isn't going to be quality controlled or as in-depth as a legitimate civics course in your school or a 12-page-long New York Times article."
Plus, when politicians and candidates try to engage with young people on social media, Ames says they often incorrectly frame their content as entertainment instead of education.
"Even if we are young people, we are still serious about the ballots we cast," Ames said, "So we shouldn't decide that youth engagement to us means our candidate has a TikTok account. Youth engagement should be actually teaching the young people in our communities how our policies impact the things that touch them."
To Ames, a good example of a national politician engaging on social media is Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who posts video updates and explainers to her 8.6 million followers on Instagram outlining her daily work and political decisions.
Similarly, Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson, D-N.C., has developed a following over TikTok, which he started during his campaign and now uses as a House member. His account has already raked in over 341,000 followers, a much larger amount compared to Twitter, where he has 94,000.
@jeffjacksonnc State Sen. Jeff Jackson. #charlotte #clt #nc #northcarolina #raleigh #durham #asheville #uncc #vote #midterm ♬ original sound - Jeff Jackson
Gen Z's political loyalty remains an open question
Democrats aren't the only ones who want to do a better job educating young voters. Some young Republicans say a change is needed within their party too.
"Young people aren't looking towards the policies that are really going to be directly affecting their lives. Instead, they're looking towards the big ticket items of major social and political discussion," said David Hora, a 22-year-old senior at Iowa State University who calls himself a proud Republican.
To Hora, who grew up in a farm family, Republicans need to take the conversation back — arguing topics like abortion, gun control and immigration reform distract young voters from more applicable concerns involving finances and the economy.
But that battle is a tough one for Republicans, given Gen Z voters overwhelmingly supported Democrats over Republicans in the midterms by 27 points — and prioritized protecting abortion access by a higher amount than any other generation, according to SocialSphere's survey data.
That said, a potential lack of party identity leaves hope for Republicans. Notably, just 30% of Gen Zers surveyed said they aligned with Democrats, compared to 24% for Republicans and 28% for independents.
"The Democrats don't own these votes. They're renting them," said Republican political strategist John Brabender. "There still is an open door, and I think there is both a want from these voters to hear more, but that door is not going to be open forever."
To Brabender, the upcoming presidential election offers momentum for the GOP to capitalize on young voters. The GOP's first objective should be to tighten the margins.
Putting the 2022 election in the rearview and looking ahead to 2024, some Gen Z voters do remain undecided.
Mia Kennedy, a sophomore at Miami Dade College, chose not to vote in the midterms because she felt she didn't have enough balanced information to make her decision.
"There's really extreme on one side, and then there's really extreme on the other side, and I just feel like I don't know where to go for information," Kennedy said. "I feel like I need a middle ground."
Kennedy is registered as an independent but says she leans more conservative. By the time the next election comes around, she's hoping to have a better understanding of where she falls.
"I feel like I'm not one of those people to just be like, I'll vote red because I'm red or blue because I'm blue. I want to know what I'm going into," she explained. "But regardless, I think I am going to vote."
The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of NPR.
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