The Current·Road to November

U.S. election is a 'now-or-never' moment, say young voters worried about country they'll inherit post-pandemic

In Tennessee, young voters are concerned about the country and economy they'll inherit after the pandemic, but not all agree on who is the right candidate to lead the country through it.

Youth concerned about country and economy they'll inherit after pandemic

A young voter holds a sign at a rally ahead of the 2018 midterms. Youth voting was up that year in the U.S., and one poll suggests it could be even higher this year. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

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This story is part of The Current's series Road to November, a virtual trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana, to meet some of the people whose lives will be shaped by the 2020 U.S. presidential election.


While there are indications of an upsurge in the number of young people casting their ballots on Nov. 3, one young Tennessee voter says he and his friends "don't really feel enthusiastic about any of it."

"We feel more so urgent and responsible to go out and vote," said Austin Dowell, a 24-year-old Democrat who is studying sound engineering at the Blackbird Academy in Nashville, Tenn.

"It feels more of a now-or-never sort of situation, than exercising a right," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

Austin Dowell, a 24-year-old Democrat, studies sound engineering at the Blackbird Academy in Nashville, Tenn. (Submitted by Austin Dowell)

Across the political aisle from Dowell, Alex Schramkowski, chairman of the Tennessee College Republican Committee, thinks the election will be "one of the most pivotal of what will be my entire lifetime."

"We're going to inherit the economy. We're going to inherit the country after the pandemic is over," said Schramkowski, 22, a first-year law student at Belmont University.

"That's going to be the country that we grow up in, that we build families in, and that we try and build a career in," he told Galloway.

In September, 64 per cent of respondents in a national Harvard Youth Poll of 18- to 29-year olds indicated they will "definitely be voting" in November's election, compared to 47 per cent who responded that way at the same time in the 2016 campaign. 

While U.S. youth voter turnout is consistently low by global standards, the poll from the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School suggested 2020 could reach levels not seen since Barack Obama's first campaign in 2008.

"Young Americans today find themselves on the front lines of the 'triple crises' of COVID," Harvard Public Opinion Project chair Justing Tseng said in a statement.

A voter registration drive at the University of Texas at Austin on Oct. 5, 2020. (Jay Janner/AP)

"Their education has been disrupted, job prospects falter, and communities [are] experiencing a racial reckoning causing constant concern about their daily livelihoods and the well-being of their friends and their families."

"Young voters are tuning in and facing our nation's challenges head first. Don't be surprised when they turn out at the polls in historic numbers."

The predicted increase echoes the shift in the 2018 midterms that handed Congress back to the Democrats, in which 36 per cent of eligible young voters cast a ballot, compared to a 20 per cent turnout in 2014. 

Schramkowski said in Tennessee, voting totals are already exceeding the last two elections as people try to vote early in the pandemic.

"I personally have never had to wait very long in line before to vote — this election during early voting, by contrast, the line went down the block," he told The Current, over email.

"My generation realizes the importance of this moment in history, which is only magnified by the impacts of the global pandemic."

Alex Schramkowski is a first-year law student at Belmont University, in Nashville, Tenn., and chairman of the Tennessee College Republican Committee. (Submitted by Alex Schramkowski)

That youth vote has the potential to pack a political punch. More than 15 million Americans have turned 18 since 2016, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a non-partisan, independent research organization focused on youth civic engagement.

When these Gen Z voters are combined with their millennial peers (some of whom are now in their late 30s), they comprise 37 per cent of eligible U.S. voters, according to a July analysis of census data by the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Research from CIRCLE suggests a high level of political engagement among those youngest voters, with "three-quarters [saying] they are paying some or a lot of attention to the election." 

The poll cites 79 per cent of respondents saying the pandemic has "helped them realize that politics impact their everyday lives."

In a statement accompanying the research, Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life, said that "young people are leading on issues, and they are organizing and demanding change."

"They know that their generation has the power to make a difference," he said.

What's at stake for young voters?

According to the CBC Presidential Poll Tracker, Republican nominee Donald Trump has a commanding lead in Tennessee as of Thursday morning, with 57.6 per cent against Democratic nominee Joe Biden's 40.6 per cent.

In 2016, Trump won the state's 11 electoral college votes with 60.7 per cent of the ballot, ahead of Hillary Clinton's 34.7 per cent. 

Belmont University will host Thursday night's debate between Republican candidate Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The candidates will hold their final debate Thursday night at Nashville's Belmont University — Schramkowski's campus. 

After criticism that the first debate descended into chaos, he hopes the candidates don't "lose their passion" this time around, but wants them to present a clearer picture for protecting Americans' health while getting the economy back on track.

"I think what's at stake in this election is trying to make sure that we have a commander-in-chief who has a plan in place to try and get us out of the pandemic, and recover at the fastest rate that we can," he said. 

While he acknowledged that Trump has faced criticism for his pandemic response, he said, "you don't really want to take the captain away from the ship, while we're still trying to steer the ship through the storm."

He pointed to Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's multibillion-dollar investment in fast-tracking a vaccine, as one of the ways the president is fighting the pandemic.

"If we're even able to get one by this winter or kind of early next spring, I'd consider that a win," he said. 

Fauci counters Trump’s claim COVID-19 vaccine is around the corner

The National

2 months agoVideo
1:56
While top U.S. health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, testify before a Senate committee about the coronavirus response, President Donald Trump continues to claim a vaccine is just around the corner and mocks his adversary Joe Biden for wearing a mask. 1:56

In September, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield said he didn't expect a vaccine for COVID-19 to be broadly available until the second or third quarter of 2021. He was contradicted hours later by Trump, who said the director was mistaken and distribution of a vaccine would start "sometime in October."

Johnson & Johnson began the final phase testing of its potential vaccine — the most advanced of several in late-stage testing — in late September, but was forced to pause over an unexplained illness on Oct.13. Canada has a deal with the drug conglomerate for 38 million doses.

But Dowell, the young Democrat voter, said he felt across the world, "the United States has done the worst as far as combating the coronavirus."

He wants to see the U.S. respond to the ongoing pandemic with a plan that is "formally and safely" rolled out — something "that hasn't been what we've been doing."

He's also concerned about climate change, which he thinks "hasn't been a priority" for the Trump administration. 

Halloween decorations in Nashville spell out the word 'VOTE' this week. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

By contrast, he was impressed by Biden's position on climate at the first debate.

"He had a really clear understanding of what it was, and from my point of view, he had a really clear plan for the United States," he said. 

But overall, he said he's "voting for the lesser of two evils."

"I don't think I've really seen anything from Joe Biden that really — at least convinces me — that we're going to get somewhere soon," he said. 

"But I do have more faith in him than our current president." 

Trump, Biden face off in first presidential debate

The National

2 months agoVideo
5:51
U.S. President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden faced off in their first presidential debate, with Trump looking to increase lagging support and Biden trying to disprove doubts about his age and abilities. 5:51

To 'mend the divisiveness,' listen

Despite their differences, both students agreed that divisive rhetoric in the U.S. needs to be addressed.

Dowell wants people to listen to each other more, and try to look beyond the Republican or Democrat ideals they might have been raised with.

"All you can do is ask people to listen and to be more sympathetic, and do the right thing," he said.

Schramkowski agreed there's an impulse to demonize rather than understand each other's politics, but he doesn't think this "necessarily lies directly at the feet of the current president."

"We were divided long before President Trump took office. We were divided during the Bush years and we were divided during the Obama years as well," he said.

"It's incumbent upon everybody to work as active citizens to try and mend the divisiveness, because I don't think that one person can accomplish it all by themselves."

For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of the same size for the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School's poll on youth voter intentions would yield a margin of error of 3.22 percentage points at the 95 per cent confidence level. The margin of error for the CIRCLE poll is 4.1 percentage points.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Joana Draghici, with additional tape gathering from Cariad Harmon.

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