When you turn 18, you’re legally considered an adult. This comes with a multitude of new responsibilities in this country – not the least of which is access to the ballot box. With Atlanta’s 2021 municipal elections on the horizon, ACC spoke to potential new voters from this cohort to hear their thoughts on local politics and the power of the youth vote.
In the 2020 general election, half of the younger generation, ages 18 to 29, submitted their ballot, according to an analysis published by Tufts University. That’s an 11-point increase from the 2016 election cycle, but among that age group, folks aged 18 or 19 vote at a lesser rate — around 46 percent.
The federal elections are flashier and garner more publicity, so will young Atlanta voters have a similar turnout for the city’s upcoming local elections?
For Maynard H. Jackson High School senior Jaiden Thomas, whether or not she’ll vote isn’t a question. Thomas will be eligible in the upcoming elections, and she plans on submitting a ballot for the first time, thanks in part to a pilot civics program called Democracy Class Atlanta.
The curriculum, offered to around 2,000 Atlanta Public School juniors and seniors, focuses on voter education and the importance of being involved in local and national elections.
“Coming into it, I will admit that I didn’t know as much about voting as I do now,” Thomas said. Now, she plans on “not just tackling the national elections as well as the small elections that take place throughout the year.”
Maynard Jackson junior Elizabeth Millman and Anne Ware, a Carver Early College junior, are also participating in Democracy Class Atlanta. Millman isn’t old enough to vote, which has made her even more energized to get involved in other ways.
“For me and Anne not being eligible just yet, there’s a deeper meaning to it because we need to use other people as our voices because we’re not able to use our voice that way yet,” Millman said. “So for us, for me, it’s the power of getting someone else to vote and being that voice that tells them, ‘Hey, this is important.’”
But what about the other half of young voters — why didn’t they cast a ballot?
The students have a couple of theories, including bad publicity and feelings of powerlessness.
“I would definitely say publicity plays a major role in most not wanting to vote because of the negative connotation that voting has had over the years,” Thomas said. “Especially because social media is very big these days. If there was more of a positive portrayal of voting, and the impact that people can have from it, then maybe more people would want to vote.”
“For a lot of us, our first lesson that we are really able to remember is the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton election, where Donald Trump didn’t win the popular vote, but he won the electoral vote,” Ware added. “I feel like a lot of people after that election were very discouraged. I feel like this past election, that has changed because they’ve seen the power of if we all come together, what our voice and what our vote can do.”
Kevin Shanker Sinha, the founder of grassroots advocacy group CivicGeorgia, finds young voters to be engaged in local politics “now more than ever.”
“I think a lot of things happen that have sort of made space for young people to stay civically engaged in more of an ongoing capacity rather than seeing presidential elections as a once-in-four-years checklist,” he said. “I think some of the things that we’re experiencing are showing us that local leadership and local elected officials are the ones who have the opportunity to influence what’s happening.”
Sophomore Aidan Russell-McCorkle is the secretary of Young Democratic Socialists of America at Georgia Tech and works on City Council District 4 candidate Rogelio Arcila’s campaign. Suffice it to say, they are rather civically engaged.
Russell-McCorkle views candidate options, and their stance on the city’s hot topics, as the main roadblock for young voters.
“On a policy level, I don’t think there are any more deterrents than there are for anyone else. On a candidate level, there aren’t that many people, especially in the Atlanta municipal elections, that are that exciting for the young voters,” they said.
“I think a lot of the framing around crime is sort of skewed. So it’s like, ‘Crime is at an all-time high; what we need is more police.’ And that’s not necessarily accurate, especially from our perspective,” Russell-McCorkle added. “You know, when we see crime is at an all-time high, it’s like, what is the actual root cause of this? So our answer to that is if we make sure that all of our neighbors have food on the table and a roof over their head…we’re going to see this crime go down.”
Russell-McCorkle has voted five times, both in local and federal elections. They found vote-by-mail to be a “hassle,” so they encourage other voters to take advantage of the shorter lines that come with early voting.
Royce Carter Mann has not only a voting plan but also a plan for his campaign. He’s running for Atlanta Board of Education Seat 7 At Large — at 19.
Education is a pillar of Mann’s family. His dad worked as an arts educator and his grandmother served on former President Jimmy Carter’s administration, helping launch the U.S. Department of Education.
He first became inspired to run for office as a junior at Midtown High, formerly known as Grady, when he advocated for adding a student position to the Board. The idea was shot down because state law prevents minors from taking elected positions, so he decided, “the next best thing would be a recent graduate of APS.”
Mann believes it’s essential to have young people in office and the polling booths because “we’re going to be living with these policies longer than anybody.”
“If we’re not engaged, we’re not going to be able to write our own futures,” he said. “So many young people are fed up with the status quo. I think, unfortunately, to the point that they feel that their own engagement wouldn’t even have the impact they want.”
So, he’s hoping to take office to lead by example.
“I think we really just need to show young folks that when we’re consistently engaged, and when we not only vote, but when we hold our elected officials accountable, [and] take the step to run for office and stay engaged in a multitude of ways, then we will start to see the results we want,” Mann said.
If you’re planning on voting in November, whether it’s your first time or you’re a pro, let us know your voting plan. If you want to learn more about the city’s upcoming elections, check out our 2021 Atlanta Voter Resource Guide to meet the candidates running in the city’s upcoming elections.