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Protests, Politics, and Power: Exploring the Connections Between Youth Voting and Youth Movements

CIRCLE co-led qualitative and quantitative studies that found a complex relationship between social movements and electoral engagement.

Youth activism and participation in social movements has been one of the defining features of civic life in the past several years: from the anti-gun violence protests after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, to the nationwide actions for racial justice following George Floyd's murder in 2020. Both of those were also election years in which young people achieved historic or near-historic levels of voter turnout. But what, exactly, was the relationship between young people's participation in the streets and at the ballot box?

To answer that question, CIRCLE joined a team of researchers to produce Protests, Politics, and Power: Exploring the Connections Between Youth Voting and Youth Movements. This research encompasses two studies that tackled this question with different but complementary perspectives and approaches. The Role of Electoral Engagement in Youth Social Movements is a qualitative study based on interviews and supplemental surveys with young leaders and participants in social movements. The second study, Quantifying the Effects of Protests on Voter Registration and Turnout, uses quantitative methods to study changes in electoral participation in areas where protests took place. Both studies, along with supplementary materials for the quantitative study and an executive summary that highlights major findings and recommendations, can be accessed below.

The qualitative study on electoral engagement and youth-led social movements was led by Jerusha Conner, Johnnie Lotesta, Tova Wang, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, with Alex Foley, Miranda Febus, Kristen Oshyn. The quantitative study on the impact of protests on voter participation was led by John Holbein, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, and Tova Wang

This research was completed with generous support from: New Venture Fund, CIRCLE, League of Conservation Voters, Villanova University’s Department of Education & Counseling, and the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance & Innovation. CIRCLE served as coordinator for the research.

Major Findings

Both studies produced nuanced findings that are relevant for multiple stakeholders who work with and want to support youth, and we encourage reading the full reports. Below, we summarize major takeaways:

  • Different youth-led social movement organizations (SMOs) have theories of change that approach voting differently: from those that fully embrace it to those that believe it upholds unjust systems. However, irrespective or where their SMOs are on that spectrum, most youth respondents in the study believe that voting is necessary (but not sufficient) to effect change and used a range of strategies to create engaged voters.
  • Survey data show that participating in SMOs led to new knowledge and new ways of thinking among study respondents. Nearly all said they learned about how to get involved in elections happening in their area, and a full 90% reported learning about voting rights. Seventy-two percent of respondents learned about registering voters, 88% learned about how to persuade others to vote, and 93% learned about how to educate voters.
  • Amidst the 2020 crises of health, social isolation, economic downturn, and systemic racism, the young people in our study displayed outstanding resilience, mobilizing quickly to meet the needs of their communities and developing new solidarity practices. At the same time, despite demonstrable strengths and adaptability, the youth-led SMOs in this study all experienced challenges that could threaten their sustainability: high rates of activist burnout, limited funding, and complexities in organizational structure.
  • There was a sizable increase in protest accessibility and participation among young people in the Trump era, but simply having a protest in a county typically did not have a measurable effect on voter registration or voter turnout among youth overall. However, counties where more climate change protests occurred did have modestly higher rates of youth voter registration.
  • When a county had more pro-Trump protests, that county had about 1 percentage point higher voter turnout among youth (and about 1-2 percentage points among other subsets of the public) than those that had no pro-Trump protests. When a county had Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter protests, that county had a turnout rate among young people that was about 1-2 percentage points higher, with effects on other subsets of the electorate ranging from a 1-4 percentage point increase.

Insights and Recommendations

Based on their findings, the reports issue major recommendations for stakeholders interested in supporting youth activism and youth electoral engagement. Among them:

  • Adult-led voter engagement organizations should continue to collaborate with youth-led social movement organizations, help build their internal capacity, and invite them to partner on voter registration drives and GOTV efforts, but also on broader civic engagement activities not directly tied to the ballot box.
  • Funders should make longer-term investments that can create and sustain capacity across election cycles and during off-election years, and help build a vibrant ecosystem that includes both national groups and community-based SMOs that are focused on local issues and led by BIPOC youth.
  • Organizers should integrate voter engagement work with issue organizing and leadership development, and use local candidates and issues to energize potential voters.
  • Protest organizers should better collect, store, and distribute data on protest attendees in order to following up with them through get-out-the-vote interventions and ensure they show up at the polls.

Read the full reports for a complete set of recommendations.