By Lylia Saurel | Feb. 8, 2021
When Joe Biden was announced winner of the presidential race in November and thousands of New Yorkers filled the streets to celebrate, 19-year-old Josiah Ramesar didn’t—even though he voted for Biden.
“I wasn’t excited. I wasn’t mad. I just felt like, ‘Okay, now let’s see what he does,’” he said.
Turnout among young voters ages 18 through 29 was ten percent higher than it was for the last presidential election, going from 42 percent in 2016 to 52 percent in 2020. And while Biden won the youth vote by a 25 percent margin, for many young voters fed up with the Trump administration, the battle is just beginning. And in progressive places like New York, Biden has a lot of work to do to convince a generation that has mobilized around social justice issues and ground-up politics that he can be the transformational president they want.
“If he doesn’t do anything in his first four years, we’ll get him out right away,” said Ramesar.
What many young Democrats expect from the new president is unity, but they also want him to take action on issues like climate change, racial justice, and supporting working-class families. The increase in young voter turnout has also been driven in part by their growing engagement with local politics.
Roland Sosa, a 20-year-old Manhattan resident and New York University student, feels that his voice is not being heard on the federal level and that the electoral system fails to represent voters like him.
“In terms of who will become president, my vote doesn’t make a difference,” said Sosa. “But there are still people like the city council, state senate, assembly and congress members for which I want to cast my vote, to make sure that the representatives actually reflect what I want.”
Marcus Johnson, 30, an assistant professor at Baruch College in the political science department, says he saw an increase in local engagement around racial justice among his students.
“This semester students wanted to talk about what was going on in the US. It felt like every week there was something we could tie to the news cycle,” he said.
Motivated by the national response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, CUNY students mobilized to bring issues to the attention of the city council and lobbied to provide more funds to Black mental health research at Baruch.
“There seemed to be a recognition that as much as we pay attention to presidential politics, political engagement also has to happen at a local level,” said Johnson.
And while some plan to show engagement with grassroots organizing, others prefer to use online platforms. Social media played a decisive role among young adults prior to the elections in disseminating information and connecting demonstrators and advocates.
For Professor Johnson, social media is a way for young people to keep participating in political life through smaller actions such as signing petitions and sharing content. “These are forms of political engagement that matter in the long run,” he said.
Various youth-led political organizations have also helped foster the engagement of young voters such as the climate-focused Sunrise Movement, which supports a Green New Deal.
Access to politics is important, said John Paul Mejia, a Sunrise Movement spokesperson. “We are ramping up leadership programs for them to step in the realm of politics,” he said.
One of its programs, the Sunrise School, was created prior to the 2020 presidential elections and taught volunteers how to organize and remain politically active.
Mejia is determined to keep the momentum going during the lull between election cycles when it’s easy for people to become complacent. “We’ve got new hubs starting around the country as a result of Sunrise School,” said Mejia. “We definitely feel a promising forecast.”
Noam Gal, president of the Baruch College Democrats, feels that CUNY students should aim to demand more from the new administration. He believes this generation of young college students will be highly affected by political and social transformation.
“We have seen chaos in the streets of our capitol. We watched thousands of our fellow New Yorkers die in overflowing hospitals. CUNY students like myself are disproportionately suffering from financial insecurities in a New York where people are struggling,” he said.
Gal believes that Biden is at an advantage with Democratic majorities in Congress, but must step up to the demands of the young people, who have been wanting more for years.
“The Democratic party has had the unique opportunity to shape America into a place where students don’t need to choose between rent payments and school supplies,” he said.
“Young Americans are looking towards the White House with hope, but Biden must fulfill our hopes with real change, else that hope might turn to anger.”