What’s At Stake for Young Voters

What’s At Stake for Young Voters

Young people coast to coast detail the most critical issues in the 2022 midterms, from student debt to abortion to climate change.


EDITOR’S NOTE: In what many are calling the most consequential midterm elections in a lifetime, the November ballot will decide all 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives as well as the majority of statehouses and state assemblies nationwide.  The stakes are higher than ever with the future in the balance, so we had a diverse group of student journalists living coast to coast to let us know what they think is the most important issue for young people this fall. Obviously there are multiple, if not countless, pressing issues. We asked young people simply to talk about an issue that they felt is of critical importance and what they think needs to be done about it. The answers, from fourteen student writers, detail a wide-range of critical concerns of which we should all be aware. 

The most pressing issue for young people in the upcoming midterm elections is student loan cancellation—not only because of the uncertainty that has surrounded the student loan debt crisis over the past two years but also because many young people will likely graduate into recessionary conditions. Student debt is an issue that impacts more than 45 million Americans, and one that carries far beyond one’s collegiate years. Expensive degrees have become more of a necessity, rather than a choice. Yet getting one holds so many people back from opportunities that their education was supposed to bring them. During Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, he made alleviating student debt a core part of his messaging, particularly as something that can be accomplished through executive power.

Student loan payments have been paused since March 2020, and the uncertainty around another extension only adds to the financial stress of potential future payments. The cries for action have been loud and clear. Students have been rallying in states like California and New Jersey, while congressional leaders such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley have pushed for a cancellation of $50,000 per student. Young people are tired of continually calling for the changes that they’ve been promised. President Biden’s failure to act on student debt has told young voters all they need to know, but its cancellation—at least partially—could be a key signal for young voters to turn out for Democrats in the midterms. Without it, it’s difficult for young voters to focus on anything else.

—Teresa Xie, University of Pennsylvania

On April 1, 2022, workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island voted in favor of forming the first US union beneath the company’s vast corporate umbrella. This well-publicized victory followed on the heels of a successful campaign by New York Times tech workers and a nationwide Starbucks union drive. As of July 2022, workers across the United States continue to press for unionization at companies like Apple, Trader Joes, Target, and Wells Fargo.

Given that protracted bureaucratic maneuvering has slowed progress on raising the minimum wage and that inflation currently sits at a 40-year high, it is not difficult to understand the recent surge in labor organizing. The absence of a robust social safety net means that US residents are more likely to be dependent on their employer for basic needs, such as health care or retirement savings.

The Republican Party is both explicitly and insidiously anti-labor, branding unionization efforts as “woke” in a bid to inflame the cultural war outrage of its voters, and authoring an updated version of the Teamwork for Employees and Managers Act in 2022. In a press release, the bill was described as providing “workers seeking to organize with an alternative to unionization that allows both workers and managers to work together.” In actuality, the new bill eliminates protections against employer interference in union drives and permits companies to form competing company-controlled entities in unionized workplaces, with the aim of destabilizing the union.

The Democratic Party, particularly in its progressive wing, is both rhetorically and substantively more hospitable toward unions. Although, as previously noted in The Nation, the party’s recent history with labor organizing could be described as uneven, representatives have produced legislation like the 2021 Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which, if it had passed, would have strengthened the legal right to join a labor union, prevented companies from misclassifying their workers as independent contractors, and weakened “right-to-work” laws.

Despite their misleading moniker, right-to-work laws erode union influence and, according to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the adoption of these laws consistently coincides with a decrease in wages. The Republican Party introduced a federal right-to-work bill in 2017, which failed, but Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have each successfully passed right-to-work legislation in the past decade.

Though the impetus for unionization can only come from workers themselves, the legislature can nonetheless curtail or bolster workers’ ability to organize. In this light, the midterms represent one opportunity—of many—for young people to express their collective support of the country’s renewed labor movement as incoming members of the labor force.

—Kendra Mills, George Washington University

For myself and many other young people, the most pressing issue of the election is the climate crisis. One of the most common questions students get is, “What are you going to do once you’re done with school?” Once you’re out of school, financial advisers will tell you that the smartest thing to do is to start putting money away as early as possible for your retirement. If you are in a long-term relationship or getting married, people never stop asking you, “When are you going to have kids?” Young people are constantly being asked to decide our futures as individuals, even though we aren’t given enough power to be able to make change on an institutional level.

When climate scientists are telling us that our fate is already sealed for the next few decades, how are we supposed to think about any of these decisions? Why would I bother saving for retirement if the world may be uninhabitable by that time anyway? Why would I even consider bringing a child into this world if they’re not even going to have the chance to fix the mistakes of prior generations? Why would I go to the polls when my only options are between climate change deniers or the party in power that constantly makes promises it doesn’t fulfill?

We need politicians who are brave enough to commit to climate action now. Not in 2050, 2040, or even 2030. We need young politicians who have skin in the game—people who are going to be around for more than another decade or two—and who have a plan for climate action that starts right now. Politicians who are ready to take on big corporations and fundamentally change the way they operate. That way, young people can plan for their future without worrying that it may all be just a waste of their time.

—Georgia Dalke, Red River College Polytechnic

A funded and legislatively supported clean energy transition will address, on a large scale, the biggest existential threat to the United States—climate change. In 2020, fossil fuel combustion for energy accounted for 73 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions. The US has the technology and means to make huge strides toward decarbonizing energy production by investing in green infrastructure, but lacks the political will to move a clean energy transition forward, as seen with the failure of Build Back Better.

As of 2022, the US is still able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. Every year and even every election cycle, the window to avoid the worst that climate change has to offer gets smaller and the task of mitigating disaster becomes more daunting.

The 2022 midterms need a champion of the clean energy transition, and that should be someone who recognizes the multifaceted benefits that would come from a renewable energy rollout. The energy blackmail of Europe subsequent on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted how reliant Western Europe is on Russian fossil fuels. Energy-importing countries are hamstrung into doing business with authoritarian regimes in states like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela because their infrastructure is built around fossil fuels. The United States needs to be a global leader in showing that investment in and implementation of renewable energy are possible and beneficial in industrialized nations, and that clean energy is an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

—Paul Gordon, DePaul University

In 2020, young people tirelessly campaigned and turned out in record numbers to elect President Biden alongside a democratic majority in Congress. Since then, we’ve organized, marched, and put our bodies on the line to hold Biden accountable, knowing that the past two years were our best shot at passing meaningful federal climate policy before the worst impacts of climate change become irreversible.

The intensity of our efforts has taken its toll. We’ve devoted countless—mostly unpaid—hours to climate organizing and suffered persistent climate anxiety, all while juggling school, work, and social life. Too many times, I’ve watched as this impossible burden leaves deeply talented activists burnt out and left with no choice but to step back from organizing.

As November 8 approaches, we have little to show for our sacrifices. Congress failed to act on climate; President Biden continues to expand oil drilling on public lands; and the West Virginia v. EPA decision severely restricts the EPA’s capacity to regulate emissions. Exhausted, and disillusioned by the slim results of our efforts to create change, many young people are ready to give up. Unlike prior generations, however, we don’t have the luxury of kicking the can farther down the road—things have to change now. We cannot afford to lose another organizer to burnout.

I urge my fellow organizers to use the midterms as an opportunity to recharge. Relax today so you can organize tomorrow. Do something that takes your mind off the climate crisis. Check in on your fellow organizers. As we turn to the next chapter of the youth climate movement, consider what you have learned. How will you center the well-being of yourself and others to prevent future burnout? Remain optimistic. Find empowerment in the victories we have won along the way. Remember that, as activist Mariame Kaba teaches us, hope is a discipline. Choose to believe in a better world even in times like these.

The midterms will not be the last setback we face. If we really are going to be the generation that does something about the climate crisis, it will only be because we remained hopeful and took care of ourselves and each other.

—Jake Lowe, George Washington University

Young people know that climate change amplifies every form of social injustice, making our rights harder to exercise and protect. From heightening the dangers of pregnancy—causing us to rethink our potential desires to have children—to fueling environmental instabilities like heat stress that make it harder to protest, and even vote, we already see that climate change has impacted our daily lives, not just our newsfeeds.

Congress is struggling to pass increasingly limited climate mitigation measures, which cannot stall the cataclysmic consequences of the oil and gas giants’ deadly core business models. What’s more, the White House is advancing oil and gas drilling, after we played a pivotal role in putting President Biden in the Oval Office for the express purpose of tackling the climate crisis and advancing climate justice.

Who we elect—and just as importantly, who we don’t—could make the difference in whether lawmakers can pass any climate policy. Already, states from California and Washington to Maryland and Massachusetts are showing their potential to lead the way in climate action, despite frustrating federal politics.

Ultimately, the ubiquity of climate change means that our votes and advocacy matter at every level. Our support should be for candidates who fight for all life by being pro-climate and pro-choice, recognizing that the former entails the latter. When access to the ballot box is under threat from concerted right-wing campaigns seeking to limit and distort the democratic process, young people must continue building a movement that focuses on the grassroots and alternative pathways to change, like forcing major cultural and economic institutions to step up through concerted direct action campaigns, or supporting local efforts to make oil and gas giants pay climate damages.

“We can’t afford anything less than a full-blown resistance to climate denial and delay” is not a tagline. It’s our reality.

—Ilana Cohen, Harvard University

When I talk to my peers about the future, we never discuss places to go after graduation, or what cities have the best job markets for people in their 20s. The central topic is always this: How much time do we have left? The more optimistic among us say 20 to 30 years. Others suggest 10 to five. None imagine that the United States will live to survive another century. Some already have escape routes, intending to use their degrees in Canada or overseas. I’ll never forget the response given to me by a woman when I asked her where she saw America in a decade: “I can’t see it in a decade.” This inescapable dread has defined my generation, polluting the dreams of everyone I know.

Roe v. Wade’s reversal and the enforcement of anti-abortion laws has only made such fatalism more common. The increase in physical and legislative attacks against the marginalized communities—including banning books and censoring discussions on race, sexuality, and gender in schools nationwide—didn’t alleviate our fears. Right-wing authoritarianism is clearly on the rise. Election deniers are winning their party primaries and fascists march in the streets of American cities. Worse, the governing party’s response has ranged from insulting to hypocritical, and any good will it may have garnered in 2020 among youth has since evaporated. We are the most progressive generation in living memory, and more of us identity as LGBTQ than any that came before. Nothing can stop the rising reactionary tide other than a complete political and economic transformation—one led by youth and those most impacted by far-right policies. We will accept nothing less.

—Zurie Pope, University of Cincinnati

Climate change is undeniably here, and it will only get worse. Instead of responding accordingly, the United States is moving backward: The Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA severely constricts the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With Senator Joe Manchin playing interference, President Biden has seemingly forfeited most plans to reduce emissions plans that were already insufficient to begin with. Make no mistake: Tackling the climate crisis can’t be divorced from tackling racism or socioeconomic injustice. Redlined communities are already harmed by proximity to extractive industries; poor communities are already exposed to the worst air pollution. Climate justice is social justice.

Climate change is, in my mind, the most important issue in this election, because it stands to impact billions worldwide, extending beyond the United States’ geographical borders and affecting virtually every other issue facing American society. In the absence of real action against the climate crisis, we need to be able to hold our legislative officials accountable for their willful neglect of our and future generations. As the world quite literally burns, we need to replace the state and congressional officials who represent the fossil fuel industry. It will undoubtedly be challenging, but it is indeed possible. The midterm elections are an opportunity for us to bring real representation to the centers of decision-making power across the country.

—Leehi Yona, Stanford University

The most pressing issue of this election is the fact that most Republicans still falsely believe Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election. A recent Politico survey shows that roughly 70 percent of Republicans don’t believe Biden legitimately won in 2020. Furthermore, Republican politicians who embraced Trump’s false claims are appearing on ballots across the country this November. That such a large portion of our electorate doubt the legitimacy of our elections poses a great threat to our country’s democratic foundation. The January 6 insurrection can serve as a glimpse of what may come if this widespread government distrust continues.

So, what is the solution? Because there is no single cause of this distrust, it is impossible to formulate one single answer. However, I believe the key to convincing these voters that our elections are legitimate lies in, first, convincing them that the Democratic Party is not a malicious enemy out to destroy their rights and freedoms. To do this, more post-college-aged, young, liberal people (like myself) need to stop moving to ultra-liberal cities and start relocating to the more Republican-populated areas of our country.

One main reason most Republicans remain unconvinced of the legitimacy of the 2020 election is because most of them did not know a single person who voted for Joe Biden. A Biden victory goes against the social reality they experience every day. Maps of the 2020 election results show that many Republican voters live in communities that are almost entirely red. Ideologically diversifying these areas would force interparty interaction among members of the electorate, and ideally decrease feelings of antipathy between members of both parties. Even if this antipathy were to remain, at least these voters would be exposed to opposing viewpoints outside their extremist echo chambers.

If our democratic foundation is to remain intact, we all must exit our comfort zones, and truly embrace political diversity.

—Cassidy Morales, City University of New York

Last August, I stepped back from a wooden podium overlooking the members of my county school board and my heart sank. I’d spent months organizing with other Georgia public school students to present a diversity proposal to our school board, only to be met with tense smiles and empty words.

Earlier that summer, Georgia school boards began banning diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in order to combat “critical race theory,” often without understanding what those terms meant. In my county, parents (and some students) showed up en masse to protest race and sex education. It felt like the-chicken-or-the-egg dilemma; parents and school board members were scared of queer literature and historically accurate education because they were never exposed to diverse perspectives growing up. This disconnect fueled bigotry, shame, and disgust in their own children and their children’s classmates.

In the 2022 general election, education is on the ballot. In states like Georgia, my home, and Pennsylvania, where I attend college, whom we elect to serve in statewide and local office severely impacts the quality of education our children receive. Many education organizers are tired of hearing “just vote” when their state representatives and school board officials repeatedly carve a path for bigotry and discrimination into our schools.

The 2022 election is one step toward introducing historically accurate education, respectful culture-specific coursework, queer literature, and medically sound sex education, but organizers who aren’t yet old enough to vote wage this battle every day. In the months leading up to the 2022 elections, community members can be vocal at their school board meetings. Parents tell me that the last person board members expect to step up to the podium is a student. In our communities, it only takes small steps to begin educating our neighbors.

The fight for equitable public education is so much greater than diverse course offerings and redistribution of resources, and it occurs every day in our classrooms, libraries, and community centers. Public education is the bedrock of thought in America—thought that transforms the world. We need to treat it as such every day.

—Mira Sydow, University of Pennsylvania

The repeal of Roe v. Wade is a threat that feels immediate. My friends and I have grown up in overwhelmingly pro-choice New York City and in a country where abortion was protected all our lives. While we have watched the Supreme Court chip away at that protection over the past several years, this is still a stunning decision. We’re now hearing about horrifying cases, such as 10-year-old rape victims being denied abortions in their home states. Some of my friends will attend college in states where abortion is now illegal. Many now consider vast regions of America unsafe and are worried that their lives could be upended in an instant.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization affects everyone—whether or not they have a uterus or need an abortion. Studies have shown that abortion bans lead to decreased workforce participation, negative effects on the financial well-being of children, and increased gender and racial inequality, all of which affect the US economy. On the other hand, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, if statewide abortion restrictions were waived, not only would around 505,000 more women in the 15-to-44 age range be in the labor force; they would also earn over $3 billion annually. Women who are already employed would earn $101.8 billion more. These gains would obviously fuel state economies.

More fundamentally, acknowledging the right to an abortion is an acknowledgment that humans have a right to privacy and bodily autonomy. I think young people are going to be voting for those who pass legislation to protect abortion.

—Aruna Das, Columbia University

Gubernatorial races have become more important than ever. In Maine, the November election will decide whether the state returns to the years of government budget cutting and tax breaks for the rich. The incumbent Democratic governor, Janet Mills, will go against the Republican candidate, Paul LePage, who held the title for two consecutive terms. LePage successfully gutted pensions for state employees and teachers in order to finance tax cuts for the highest brackets, while also pushing anti-labor legislation. He cut workers’ compensation for severely injured people, prohibited project labor agreements on public works construction projects, and in 2011 fought to decrease the minimum wage for people under 20 to $5.25 from $7.50.

Electing LePage at a time where an anti-labor sentiment is growing among right-wingers could be a fatal blow to the progress that organized labor and activists have scored in Maine. Inflation is on everyone’s lips, and conservatives like LePage love to blame financial stimulus measures—such as the pandemic relief or Maine’s $850 relief checks—as being the cause for a surge in prices. The narrative is popular among conservatives, completely ignoring the supply chain issues, the hike in energy prices, and the soaring profits that gas companies scored.

Maine is still healing from eight years of LePage’s government, trying to fund child protective services and mental health facilities and to offer aid to the elderly. If LePage wins the election, he will pave the way for Big Capital to use Maine as its playground.

—Radu Stochita, Bowdoin College

Establishment Democrats have spent the summer warning prospective donors that everything is “on the ballot.” The politics of ill-timed donation-soliciting e-mails aside, the statement rings true. Basic rights to bodily autonomy, privacy, and a habitable planet are all on the chopping block, if not already gone. As of this June, millions of young people across the country are growing up with fewer rights than their parents and grandparents had. Time and time again, elected officials across party lines have proven they won’t protect their constituents in schools, grocery stores, or parades.

As I write this, I’m living at home in Miami during what could be one of the city’s hottest summers ever. The incessant threats to our future are palpable, as is our current government’s paralyzing inaction in the face of Republican minority’s capture of our political institutions. It is nearly impossible to pin down a single most pressing issue in an election that is sure to represent a turning point in our national politics. A still-ongoing pandemic, a planet on fire, increasing gun violence, deep-rooted systemic racism, and a widespread attack on LGBTQ+ rights are all problems that must be addressed boldly and immediately. But just as it is impossible to pick a single topic to prioritize in this year’s elections—without overlooking the ways in which these problems are interconnected under structures of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism and thus must be addressed simultaneously—the first two years of the Biden presidency have shown that it is also impossible to address any issue at all without rectifying undemocratic Senate rules. That is, abolishing the filibuster.

This fall will see races for 35 empty or contested US Senate seats across as many states; 13 of those running are Democrats up for reelection. Voters should focus not on “voting blue no matter who” but on aiding candidates who will commit to ending the filibuster and, consequently, the grip of minority rule on our purportedly democratic institutions. Historically, the filibuster was used as a racist tool to protect white supremacy. That history is ever present as the arcane Senate norm is being used to prevent widely popular legislation that would benefit all Americans from ever reaching the president’s desk. The filibuster must go if our government is ever going to be accountable to the needs and demands of the people. The candidates young people vote for should not only understand that but should also be committed to doing the work of passing the critical legislation that the filibuster has stopped—like this year’s critical voting rights bill—as quickly as possible.

—Sofia Andrade, Harvard University

As a young person, I am unconvinced that elections are avenues to solving the most pressing social issues. In June, millions of acres were auctioned off for private oil and gas extraction, despite President Biden’s campaign trail promise to end leasing of federal lands for fossil fuels. On Independence Day, residents of my hometown of Highland Park were massacred by a man who, in the months prior, gloated online about his desire to commit a mass shooting. This slaughter came as we were still drying our tears from the losses in Uvalde, Buffalo, and other American cities. Children at the border are still in cages and hundreds of people boil alive in sweltering conditions after attempting to cross the Rio Grande as the Biden administration maintains a border policy of “Prevention Through Deterrence.” Brown and Black communities are still over-incarcerated and harassed or killed by police. Women and the LGBT+ community watch as hard-fought rights dissolve before our eyes. Developers are permitted to build overpriced housing, while millions have nowhere to lay their heads at night, on a planet that will soon be uninhabitable anyway.

I grew up watching politicians—both Republican and Democrat—failing to live up to their promises and bluntly rebuffing the wishes of constituents in favor of corporate lobbyists who pay top dollar to keep their harmful industries running. I have a hard time believing that elections can lead to the scale of change needed to solve the avoidable social crises that haunt us. Politicians consistently make legislative decisions that do not reflect the interests of the American people. From what I’ve seen in the two-and-a-half decades I’ve lived on this earth, it is not elections but the political mobilization of millions of people—in the streets and strengthening mutual aid networks—that will address the world’s most pressing issues in the long term.

—Miranda Dotson, Northeastern University

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