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Joe Biden is the President Elect. As we wait for the Trump administration to finish its thrashing death throes in court, it’s important to remember in a time of vastly unequal wealth distribution (thank you Mr. Bezos!), in spite of overt attempts from Republicans to suppress voters in the 2020 election, voting remains the most politically powerful actions we as Americans are capable of. Joe Biden is the President Elect because of a surge of new, young, and diverse voters.
I saw this trend play out firsthand in my hometown St. Louis, where I voted in-person absentee on October 17th. The early voting process was easy and efficient. The lines were long, and the weather was cold, but ripples of excitement surrounded the Board of Elections center as we inched closer and closer to the polls. The vast majority of voters I saw that day were people of color and voters from the age of 18-30. There were also many older and disabled voters who showed that even in the face of a pandemic that was heating up, the 2020 election got people out of their houses and to the polls.
On that day, I saw enormous numbers of voters of different ages, demographics, and ethnicities, voting for the first time. How could I tell? At the St. Louis City Board of Elections, new/first-time voters were greeted at the registration booths with the ringing of a bell and outbursts of applause and cheers from workers and everyone in line. Though I was only in line for an hour to an hour and a half, bells from various registry checkpoints were near-constantly ringing as they greeted first-time voters.
Often times I saw first-time voters blush or nervously look at their feet with the attention and spotlight on them, and there could be a cohesive argument made that recognizing first time voters in a public setting is a slippery slope. Is it appropriate to have a public emotional reaction to another individual’s private voting history (or lack thereof) in an active polling place? People could shame or boo the first timers at the notion that in such a politically and ideologically divided time there are those that are or have been shirking their civic responsibilities by not voting. However, the bells were not partisan theatrics based on every Biden (or Trump) vote cast. They were simply recognizing the magnitude and power of a vote and the significance of the first-time voter.
On that day, it was a heartening, supportive environment. People waved at and congratulated new voters, without necessarily knowing who those voters would be casting their votes for, and for a moment we could see the power of what we were doing, the significance of even just one vote. It showed that the 2020 election was different. It upended voting norms and got people, and especially young voters, to the polls.
Luckily, we can all take a collective deep breath in relief. Biden won the presidency, managing to flip Georgia and several other key states in the process (and paving the way for sweeping democratic reforms) largely because of historically high voter turnout and the demographic breakdown of those voters. In an election with both candidates above the age of 74, it was easy to imagine that young voters would have trouble connecting with their political representatives. Democrats needed the surging engagement of young people and people of color, many who were inspired or registered to vote after BLM protests and organizing, to transfer into actual ballots cast.
In the 2016 election, around 55% of eligible Americans voted (an increase from earlier elections), with young and underrepresented communities having particularly low turnout and engagement. That number rose to 65% in the 2020 election. Young people and people of color predominantly vote Democratic. In 2016, only 42-44% of voters from age 18-29 voted, and that was itself an increase from prior elections. In 2020, that margin of young voters rose to 52-55%. Considering the historical context of the 2020 election, those margins of voters are enormous.
Again, not all of those voters voted for Joe Biden in a scarily close race, and it is still too early in the election aftermath to exactly pinpoint voting trends, but what cannot be understated is the historical magnitude of this diverse, young, voting constituency. Additionally, this election cycle represented a historically unique opportunity for voters. Because of the prevalence and resurgence of Covid-19 cases across the country, voters had increased access to early and absentee voting. Is there a link between increased voting and increased access to non-in-person or early voting? Possibly. Will the trend of youth engagement and political participation build or prove historically anomalous? It’s too early to tell.
Why does this matter? In true Trump fashion, there are murmurs that he has privately accepted his defeat. However, instead of a concession, Trump is now plotting a run at the 2024 election.
At the end of the day, there is more to politics than besting Donald Trump. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have a lot of work to do, and a lot of promises to keep. That being said, it is important to recognize an increased engagement with politics in young voters, and a resurgence in participatory voting that hasn’t been seen since 1908 (when the voting pool was white men) that signals good news for our democracy.
People who have never taken the time to vote, or couldn’t, are voting, and that is a good thing.
Ryan Keeney is a student at the New School for Social Research and an Editorial Fellow for Public Seminar