The way that Marian Belk describes it, people her age were asleep four years ago – politically speaking. Barack Obama had just finished his second term and it appeared as though Hillary Clinton was going to replace him. Many of them stayed home.
“We were complacent,” says the 26-year-old North Carolina native, who works in the hospitality industry in Raleigh, North Carolina’s state capital. “I think this year is just totally different.”
“I guess we all kind of woke up at the same time. Not just because of what we’ve been through over the last four years with Donald Trump, but this year in particular. I think millennials understand this is our moment to set a course for our country.”
She is not alone. North Carolina has seen record-breaking numbers of young voters cast their ballots early this year. Some 462,000 people between the ages of 18 and 29 – an alliance of Generation Z and millennials – have already voted. That has more than doubled their share of the electorate since the last election.
It’s a similar story in several key southern swing states where polls show the presidential contest between Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden is too close to call.
Leading the way is Texas, where one million young people have already voted as of Friday, according to Tufts University, which tracks early voting data released by individual state election officials – a shift that also represents a doubling of the early vote share compared to four years ago to 13 per cent. Florida went from around 5 per cent of the early vote share to 9 per cent, with some 658,200 votes cast by young people already.
And in what should be concerning news for the Trump campaign, this new crop of voters rushing to the polls heavily favour the Democrats. A national poll released this week by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School found Biden ahead of Trump by some 38 points.
Young voters have long been thought of as a sleeping giant that has never woken up but in battleground races this year, they could play a crucial role in tipping the balance in Biden’s favour.
Here in North Carolina, Trump is one of many reasons for a backlash from the young but there are enough local grievances too. Politics here has long been dominated by old, white men – usually Republican.
“My parents grew up in segregation, they grew up in segregated schools and Jim Crow and all that. So ever since I was young they have instilled in me the importance of voting,” says Belk, who majored in hospitality management and now working in a Raleigh hotel.
But even though she was engaged before, a confluence of events in the past few years has galvanised her even more.
North Carolina’s boomer-dominated state legislature has frequently attracted national attention for passing some of the most socially regressive laws anywhere in the country. A Republican supermajority passed a bill in 2016 that effectively banned legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people by requiring people to use the bathroom assigned by their birth certificate in public places.
“I think a lot of people in North Carolina really saw the craziness of that, of what the government was trying to do with all these racist and bigoted laws, and that was a boost,” says Belk.
The capital Raleigh, where she lives, has boomed in the past 20 years, driven by an explosion in the tech industry. The nearby Research Triangle region is home to three major universities, along with thousands of tech startups and hundreds of biotech and IT companies.
The area has earned a reputation as a technology hub and comparisons to Silicon Valley, attracting young, educated and diverse new residents from across the country. Raleigh’s population has more than doubled in the last 20 years as a result.
That influx may be having an impact on politics here not just in terms of raw vote numbers, but on the parameters of the debate. Twenty-five-year-old Hayley Premo, a third-year medical student, was born and raised in North Carolina in what she describes as a “very conservative household”.
“From when I was little to now, North Carolina is definitely more of a swing state, which has been kind of interesting,” she says.
“Growing up, conservative ideas were all I knew. It was a lot of conservative propaganda, like the signs that you would see on the side of the roads would be very in the red, pro-life messages, that kind of thing.”
“But once I got older and had the ability to think on my own and do research, that's kind of when I was like swept up the idea [that I had the] ability to make good changes, things like racism, like women's reproductive rights, like the justice system reform, like all of that I just was not even aware of until probably like high school or college.”
But as North Carolina changed, its political leadership did not. This lack of representation not only energised young people to vote, but to run for office. Twenty-six-year old Nida Allam ran for county commissioner for the Democratic earlier this year and won. She had previously worked on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and she wanted to bring those progressive values and energy to Durham, where she had made her home.
“Trump being president had something to do with it, but I also think that there was this young progressive movement of people just realising that we cannot sit out these elections anymore,” she says.
Ms Allam was among dozens of young progressives who ran for office following Trump’s victory. Before that, she says, politics “was just something older people did. And if you look at our legislature it’s still like that. It’s older white men.”
“There was so much energy, and it was really pushed by Governor [Roy] Cooper being so supportive of young candidates, candidates of colour, candidates in rural areas running for office, that we were able to recruit candidates to run in every single state legislative and state senate seat. So every Republican was contested in 2018,” she says.
“There were a lot of grassroots movements also – people who felt that their district’s voice isn’t being heard in the state legislature on things like expanding Medicaid, raising our teacher’s salaries, all of these issues impact rural America, but the rural legislatures aren’t representing those for us,” she adds.
That new generation overturned a Republican supermajority in the state legislature in 2018, paving the way for a potential 2020 upset here in North Carolina – a state where a Democratic presidential candidate has won only once in 40 years.
NextGen America, a progressive advocacy nonprofit founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, has been advocating and tracking youth mobilisation for years.
“As far as tipping the balance, signs are positive this year,” says Alex Butcher-Nesbitt, the group’s deputy national press secretary. “These are wild margins when you consider the dynamics of the race in other age brackets.”
“We've seen it before: when youth turnout is up in North Carolina, Democrats win. For example, think of 2008's historic turnout where Obama won or 2018, when we finally broke the Republican supermajority in the State House,” he adds.
Whatever happens in this election, Allam is keen to build on the gains progressives have already made here in North Carolina.
“I hope it’s permanent. But it’s gonna depend on continuing to have young and progressive and outspoken candidates run. Young voters are turning out because they hate the Trump administration and they want to see change, but also if we have democratic leadership that doesn’t push for inspiring legislation they are going to think ‘what’s the point in me voting?”
For now, at least, she is hopeful.
“People are realising elections have consequences. Every single election has a consequence if you don’t vote.”
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