For weeks ahead of the state’s October 11 deadline, Maya Mackey encouraged classmates at her Texas university to register to vote. Now, she’s organizing other programming aimed at getting young people to the polls.
Mackey has been creative. She and some peers recently handed out condoms with brochures about reproductive health and information about how to vote. The 19-year-old sophomore said that educating students about their health while encouraging them to use their political voice is all about fighting for abortion access.
“Ultimately, it’s a question of, ‘Do we get to choose what we do with our bodies?’” she said. “Is the right to bodily autonomy being protected?”
Around the country, young women like Mackey are frustrated about the end of federal abortion rights following a key U.S. Supreme Court decision in June. That energy is being focused on the polls. In some instances, young women have registered to vote at higher rates than young men and older Americans, and some are organizing get-out-the-vote efforts on their college campuses.
Young women told The 19th they’re motivated to be more civically engaged this election cycle. Others said issues like LGBTQ+ rights, economic inequality, gun violence and climate change are priorities. But abortion has stood out.
“Many millions of women have been politicized by this moment,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of youth voting organization NextGen America. “In a way that even if they were already engaged before, it’s even more clear how stark the consequences are.”
Katie Ellison, a 21-year-old at Central Michigan University, said students have been organizing on her campus around several ballot measures this year. The most popular, based on her interaction with students at voter drives, is a proposal to add abortion rights to the state constitution.
“People are asking questions and becoming involved in ways that I’ve never seen or never heard,” she said.
Destiny Guerra, a 24-year-old history major at the University of Texas at El Paso, said students she’s spoken to during voter drives on campus have expressed a range of emotions over the decision known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned federal abortion protections.
“I would say sadness, but not so much — more anger that this happened in the modern age. So I’ve seen a lot of students say, ‘Things need to change. This shouldn’t be happening,’” she said. “So I think they see that it’s really in our hands now as voters.”
Several young people who spoke with The 19th say supporting abortion access is a top priority for their peers in part because the Dobbs decision opened the door for challenges to other rights including marriage equality.
“When we’re talking about building a better future, that does not include restrictions on women and other people’s bodies in this way,” said Jack Lobel, the 18-year-old deputy communications director for Voters of Tomorrow, an organization focused on youth voter turnout. “I think that also one of the reasons this angers us is because it ties into a lot of the other rights that we’re seeing under attack.”
Sara Tabatabaie is chief political officer and communications director at #VOTEPROCHOICE, an organization that works to mobilize voters and elect people who support abortion access to state and local offices. She believes polling that shows the economy is a top issue for voters is not disconnected from abortion access — and that tying the two could help Democratic candidates, who overwhemingly support abortion.
“Young women are of reproductive age. They’re most likely to need reproductive health care,” Tabatabaie said. “Young women and young people understand this issue as an intersectional issue. So when they’re concerned about student debt relief, or rising prices, it is a similar concern to not having access to health care. Because if they can’t afford their student loans, they cannot afford to travel out of state to receive abortion care, let alone have a child against their will.”
According to polling data released this month by Voters of Tomorrow, in key battleground states, abortion is the top issue for young voters between the ages of 18 and 24. Seventy-four percent of young people in the survey said they were not willing to vote for a person who doesn’t support “basic access to an early-stage abortion.”
Abortion rose as a key issue following the Dobbs decision in June, according to Pew Research Center polling released a few months later. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning registered voters, 71 percent rated abortion as very important — just 46 percent said the same in March.
A 2019 Pew study indicated that voters known as Gen Z — people born between 1997 and 2012 — are more likely to mirror the Millennial generation in the belief that the government should do more to solve problems. There are an estimated 8.3 million newly eligible young voters who can cast a ballot in 2022, but how they and other young voters lean is still being defined.
Young people who do not support abortion are also present on colleges, and organizations like Students for Life of America say they serve more than 1,300 campus groups. But polling indicates about two-thirds of adults under the age of 30 say they disapproved of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
In the weeks following the Dobbs decision, Democratic data firm TargetSmart estimated a surge in voter registration among women under 25 in Pennsylvania, Texas and Kansas, where voters later rejected a ballot measure to eliminate abortion rights.
Young people have been perceived as an unreliable voting bloc in the past. But they voted in record numbers in 2018 and high numbers in 2020. Debi Lombardi, program director for the initiative known as National Voter Registration Day, said community outreach is key.
“Young people want to vote. They just need the information they need to be asked to participate and be a part of the process, which often they’re not,” she said.
President Joe Biden this week included a call-out to young voters as he delivered a speech committing to codifying abortion rights if Democrats expand their majorities in Congress.
“In 2020 you voted and delivered the change you wanted to see in the world,” he said. “In 2022, you need to exercise the power to vote again for the future of our nation and the future of your generation,” the president said.
Ellison in Michigan noted the barriers to voting for young people, particularly on college campuses. Options for mail-in voting on campus are limited, and some students are confused about where to physically vote if they don’t live on campus. It’s even more challenging for students who don’t have access to a car or proper identification.
“Young people that I’ve interacted with are the most passionate people I’ve ever met,” she said. “They’re politically charged, they’re ready and wanting to get engaged. It’s just often really difficult for them to follow through and have a voting day plan.”
Polling shows the economy and other issues continue to be a priority for voters, a point that Republicans believe could ultimately favor them in an election year where Biden is facing headwinds, with about 42 percent of Americans viewing him favorably amid continuing inflation and high gas prices.
Heidi Sieck, co-founder and CEO of #VOTEPROCHOICE, said national Democrats need to invest more money into voter outreach efforts if they want women and young people to reach the ballot box.
“These women are showing up, they’re registering, they’re upset and they want to vote,” she said. “Where’s the money to make sure that we register every single one of those people, and what are we doing to make sure they show up?”
Mackey in Texas said she’s unable to predict what will happen in November, but she’s hopeful about her fellow classmates’ enthusiasm for voting.
“They’re gonna show those who are not supportive of reproductive justice that they messed with the wrong generation,” she said. “There’s an energy to this election — and I’ve done advocacy for other elections — there’s an energy to this one that just feels very different. And it’s electrifying.”