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CIRCLE and Snap Partner to Explore Opportunities and Barriers to Youth Running for Office

Our work will help us understand how to make pathways to elected office and civic engagement more equitable and accessible.

In recent years, CIRCLE has been at the forefront of documenting two interconnected trends: an increase in youth civic and political engagement, and young people’s use of social media, and other digital tools and platforms, to speak and act on the issues they care about. The latter trend only accelerated in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many in-person activities online, and digital platforms allowed youth to connect, create, see information about the election, and find or create opportunities to participate.

To better understand these dynamics, in 2020 we helped inform Snap’s efforts to reach and engage young people, which in turn helped broaden our understanding of how young people were using technology—especially to create and share their own media about politics. Now, as Snap (Snapchat’s parent company) launches a new tool that will help Gen-Z and millennials run for local office, we’re excited to expand our work together to research how young people approach electoral leadership, what barriers may keep them from running, and what we can do to create more equitable pathways to elected office and similar forms of civic engagement.

Our post-2020 election data has highlighted that overwhelming majorities of youth, ages 18-29, believe in their power to change the country (84%), that “people like them” should participate in the political decisions that shape the country (76%) and that they have the responsibility to do so (80%). Our studies also show youth care deeply about a wide range of issues: from climate change and racial justice to healthcare and good job opportunities.

Yet young people are severely underrepresented in elected office in the United States, with some going so far as to call the U.S. a gerontocracy. As of 2015, only 6% of state legislators were millennials or younger; the average age of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives is 59, and for Senators it’s 64. Just as it is a problem for democracy when young people’s views and priorities are underrepresented at the ballot box, it’s also a problem if youth are excluded from political decision making. 

There is limited research, specifically, on young people running for office, but what we do know suggests that youth—especially young women and youth of color—perceive and experience obstacles to doing so, ranging from time constraints, to financial concerns, to a belief that their views and attitudes are incompatible with U.S. politics. The demographics of younger candidates reflect the ways in which those obstacles are felt inequitably: according to the Young Elected Leaders Project, of the 124 millennials who ran for Congress in 2018, 73% were men and 79% were white.

Snap’s new Run for Office tool is an innovative effort to present opportunities to aspire to elected office (or nominate someone else) to its large and diverse community. Young people are already engaging with politics and elections through platforms like Snapchat; our research found that 23% of youth (ages 18-29), and 44% of those aged 18-19, said they saw info about the election on Snapchat in 2020. In addition, more than a million Snapchatters used the app’s voter registration tools in that election—including hundreds of thousands of first-time voters.

By partnering with Snap on this research, we hope to expand our understanding of the opportunities, the barriers, and the support that young people need to pursue elected office or other civic opportunities. Our work will inform, not just the work of platforms like Snapchat, but also broader efforts to increase and improve opportunities for more equitable youth participation in democracy at every level.