Young voters like these Michigan State University students came out in record number for the 2020 election. Photos by Brian Rozman
Young voters like these Michigan State University students came out in record number for the 2020 election.

With absentee ballots alone, more than three times as many Michigan youth voted in this year’s election than in 2016.

DETROIT—Michigan’s election results are telling us more about who was energized in this election. One group that turned out in a big way? The state’s youth.  

Well over half a million young people chose to cast absentee ballots in Michigan alone in the 2020 race.

“That’s an increase of 324% over the number of absentee ballots cast by young voters in 2016,” said Jay Williamson, state director for NextGen Michigan, the state’s largest youth vote organization that tracks the voting habits of adults ages 18 to 35. “This proves that the idea that young people don’t care about voting is a myth. They’ve always cared, but their voices have been purposefully and systematically suppressed… If anyone can turn the tide this year in Michigan, it’s young people.”

As official results are tallied across Michigan, they show that young voters played a big role in reversing Michigan’s course toward conservatism, helping to flip the Michigan Supreme Court to a Democratic majority, and keeping the “most effective lawmaker” Sen. Gary Peters in Washington. 

Just a few thousand young Michiganders cast absentee ballots 2016’s August primary. By March of 2020, that number had increased to more than 50,000 ballots cast. As of Nov. 3, more than 150,000 voters 35 and under cast absentee ballots.

NextGen, the Michigan Democratic Committee, and other local grassroots organizations worked overtime to engage the youth vote in the state’s largest cities—which are also Michigan’s most densely populated Black cities. 

Graphic courtesy of NextGen Michigan

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Building a Blue Wave

The push for votes in cities like Flint, Inkster, and Detroit helped Democrats to reckon with the mistakes of the 2016 Clinton campaign.

“We’d been hearing a lot about where Hillary fell short [from young voters],” NextGen Michigan press secretary Lateshia Parker told The ‘Gander. “She didn’t come and engage with Black voters.”

Parker pointed to the final weekend before Election Day and the Biden-Harris campain’s efforts to reach Detroit’s Black electorate.

“They had Obama here with Biden and Stevie Wonder,” Parker said. “How could you not engage with that or appreciate how they are coming out days before an election and still trying to meet Black voters? [The campaign can] see the importance of the Black vote and they knew they could not win Michigan without Detroit, and without the Black vote.”

The efforts to increase voter engagement trickled into Michigan’s voting precincts, with many young people choosing to fill the hundreds of election inspector vacancies left by the coronavirus.

Stephanie Croly, 31, has worked as an election official for several years, including chairing the Beechwood Elementary precincts in Redford.

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Jessica Taylor, 21, of Southfield took a break from her studies at Wayne State University (WSU) to work the polls at Hope United Methodist Church from before sunrise until nearly midnight.

Photo by Ellen Chamberlain
Election worker Jessica Taylor arrived to work before dawn, ready to defend democracy and herself—from the coronavirus.

Back on WSU’s campus, Precinct 149 was staffed completely by young people. Their work—and their votes—flipped Michigan from red to blue by margins that were more than double Donald Trump’s in 2016.

Local leaders like Dr. Abdul El-Sayed also encouraged Michigan youth to vote, saying that the results of elections affect younger people more than voters who are his own age.

“If you’re frustrated, you don’t run away from the situation you’re frustrated in,” he said. “You run toward it and seek to fix it.”

Parker said these direct addresses appealing to the youth vote helped get them to the polls.

“That engagement is what pushed us to victory in Michigan,” Parker said. “Making sure that Black voters, that young voters felt heard, felt seen, and that their voices mattered.”

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