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Younger Millennial and Gen Z voters were at the forefront of the Democrats' collective grieving after the 2016 election, when a seven-point drop in Black voter turnout amid record turnout nationwide was perceived to have cost Hillary Clinton the election. Some outlets implicated that the survival of the Democratic party relied on the energy of young Black voters to show up.
This year's record-breaking turnout may have placated some of those party anxieties, but it also brought up a new one that Democrats will need to face moving forward: the need to embrace Black youth in policy.
Activists and organizers who paid attention to 2016's lower Black youth turnout specifically responded by building slow and steady power from the ground up—efforts that paid off in full this election cycle.
Mississippi has the highest percentage of Black voters in the country. Yet, in 2016, the state's presidential turnout numbers dropped almost 75,000 below 2012 results.
In 2017, Arekia Bennett and a group of college students took a deeper look into the state's 2016 election data.
"We were doing a comparative study of Black people's voting—what they were voting for and why," said Bennett. "If there are 53,000 eligible registered voters, why aren't they voting in the cycle?"
They found that many non-participating voters were younger, poorer, and therefore often alienated by establishment politics and outreach. Bennett founded Mississippi Votes, a youth-led nonprofit focused on youth civic engagement, in 2017 as a response to the numbers they were seeing.
The mission of Mississippi Votes from the start was therefore not just to register voters, but to "cultivate a culture of civic engagement throughout the state of Mississippi," through a complex set of programs, Bennett said.
Mississippi Votes' civic engagement program asked young people—some under the legal voting age—to join "Democracy In Action Fellowships," where they established partners with local representatives to educate them on the political landscape of their state.
Bennett's staff, made up of mostly Black women, swapped books on Black feminist theory; some books became required reading for volunteers. The group shared an interest in building power by breaking establishment ideas, so reaching potential voters required innovation.
By the 2018 Mississippi primaries, just 13 percent of eligible voters cast ballots—a number Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann declared "not acceptable." The Republican governor's response was to get creative through initiatives like allowing people to go to the secretary of state's website to vote "in honor" of a member of the military.
But within that data, Bennett noticed an unusually high number of absentee ballots compared to other years. After registering about 1,500 on Mississippi college campuses alone, she saw those numbers as an indicator of a new trend emerging.
"By 2018, there was a historic turnout among young folks and Black folks across the state," said Bennett.
Come November, nearly 60 percent of eligible Black voters had cast their ballots, compared with around 46 percent in 2014.
Ahead of the curve
True to their beginnings, much of Mississippi Votes' activation strategy is run on collecting and interpreting data.
"Our data manager knows how many texts, how many people we have touched—and we have got hot young minds collecting that data here," she said. "It's an internal system and we're doing the best we can and make sure it's clean, concise and easy to read, so the proof is in the pudding."
Five years later, in the lead-up to the 2020 election, Mississippi Votes was getting attention for their creative and technologically-savvy organizing, particularly for their use of "geofencing," a tool used in telecommunications and vehicles that triggers an action when a smartphone or other handheld device enters a set geographic location.
Mississippi Votes hired a firm to help execute a campaign along with nine public and private colleges in the state to be alerted when someone was in the parameters or "fence" of local colleges and connected their smartphones to the internet. Once they were connected, a Mississippi Votes ad would pop up with a link of a sample ballot and polling precinct information. Bennett said these ads on Instagram would pop up after every 10 or 15 posts.
A firm grasp on this data is what helped ease the organization's digital transition during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Mississippi Votes relied on a strong social media presence and technology to remain visible in 82 counties, Bennett said. "We did anything but knock on doors."
By 2020, Mississippi saw its largest youth voter turnout since 2008.
Untapped digital potential
Other youth civic engagement organizations in the South like Engage Miami, in the Miami-Dade area, used TikTok to make "Get Out And Vote" videos that could easily be shared among users. They also started working with social media influencers to raise awareness.
"Progressives have room to grow. Instagram Live is great, so is YouTube and podcasts—I just think there is untapped potential," said Rebecca Pelham, Executive Director of Engage Miami, which focuses on building political power for young Black people in Southern Miami.
Engage Miami started in 2015, and ramped-up efforts in the 2016 election much like Mississippi Votes by focusing on civic engagement more so than simply registering voters.
In 2018, the group was able to register 7,000 young people. During the 2020 election cycle, they ramped-up efforts by calling even more people of color whose numbers they had in their database to walk voters through their mail-in ballots and make sure they were aware of strict signature matching requirements.
This year, she said that her organization has been trying to shift the consciousness and specific culture around the labeling of young voters as "apathetic."
The "enthusiasm gap" is often used to describe Democrats' feared epiphany: that more and more members of Gen Z are coming to reject both parties.
But putting the onus on Black youth for not having exposure to resources in order to achieve establishment-held "victories, "enthusiasm gap" rings condescending when used to describe why young people aren't lining up to support Democratic promises like a student debt-forgiveness plan for "Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities." Both Pelham and Bennett believe strongly that Generation Z cares, they just need the right ecosystem to support their values—which according to a Pew Research survey, means they were 16 percent less likely than Millennials to vote for Trump.
"Young people are not monolithic," she said. "Some have questions about the process. We are able to offer education. We have an election in 2021, people don't know about that. We ask what issues they care about and their lived experiences. What has your experience been like with policing? Have you met their city council?"
The establishment's strategy for the most part has been forced to align with Black-youth led movements like Black Lives Matter as they gain in popularity, meanwhile scolding their most anti-establishment objectives like Defund the Police. Without much "enthusiasm" to hold onto, media predictions of a larger Black voter turnout for the 2018 and 2020 elections were mostly met with cautious optimism, as activists ensured they were gaining traction.
During the height of Black Lives Matters protests this summer, both Engage Miami and Mississippi Votes supported the protests by lending their resources to youth voices, and using the momentum to open discussions on changing political leadership.
Pelham says the protests also marked a moment of division between local leaders on Black youth issues.
"I saw county commissioners scrolling through phones while young Black voters were delivering impassioned pleas in front of them on the Black Lives Matter protests," said Pelham. "I remember elected officials said we were not going to waste our time on young people."
Her organization also has a fellowship program for youth to learn more about how issues like affordable housing and police brutality are being dealt with on a local scale.
"We are trying to set a new norm about how elected officials respond to us," Pelham said. "And that norm includes leaving room for youth to see themselves reflected in policy."
Despite Southern progressive wins this year through ballot initiatives and local elections, pushback against Black youth-led movements like Black Lives Matter are threatening their ability to politically engage on their own terms. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is drafting a bill that would allow armed citizens to shoot "looters and rioters" called the "stand your ground" law which threatens a large motivating factor for Black youth turnout—protesting.
"Republicans are understanding the impact that these young voters are making and they are reacting by this punitive, draconian law. We see their impact in policy changes and the mainstream media is ignoring this work," Pelham said.
The shift in perception of Black youth voters from apathetic outliers to a game-changing demographic is gaining prominence again. While the media is still gloating over Democratic wins and losses, Southern organizers are already thinking about the next local election.