“I’ve always been super interested in voting,” said Lefkowicz, a high school senior. “But this one’s super important because it will decide the future of American politics for the next two years, and if you want to get anything done, you have to work through the Senate.”
More than 281,000 voters under 30 have already cast their ballots in the runoffs, rivaling the historic early turnout of young voters in Georgia at this point in the November election. It is an unusual level of enthusiasm for an age group that typically has low rates of voting — particularly in runoff elections, which historically draw much less attention than presidential races.
But this race has garnered enormous attention because of the high stakes for Senate control, which will decide whether Biden can enact a more ambitious Democratic agenda with the support of a unified Congress.
Trump, Biden and former president Barack Obama have all made visits to the state, and the airwaves have been blanketed with political ads. Georgia’s many voter-mobilization groups have also targeted young voters — through Zoom 18th-birthday parties, virtual assemblies for AP Government classes, and events featuring popular video gamers and local celebrities such as rapper and activist Killer Mike.
Over the past year, teens have seen an explosion of voting-related videos on TikTok, a video app that launched in 2016 and is now the communication tool of choice among 16- to 22-year-olds — many of whom are voting for the first time after years of scrolling through videos about Trump and politics.
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, who is challenging Sen. David Perdue (R), has been particularly adept at generating viral videos on TikTok that have been viewed millions of times, parodying popular memes with an emphasis on issues that resonate with young voters, such as student loan debt relief, legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage.
“If you ask young people back in 2013, we wouldn’t really be caring about a government shutdown over the debt ceiling,” Lefkowicz said. “But when you have a president on Twitter who’s going insane, it’s a little easier for the young population to digest.”
The turnout of these young voters is crucial in Georgia, which saw the highest November turnout of young voters among the 12 states where voter participation data is available, accounting for a larger share of the electorate compared with 2016 in each of those states, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. Georgia also has among the youngest electorates in battleground states.
“The fact that in a runoff election in early January, younger voters are very close to matching those turnout numbers [from November] is a little bit crazy,” said Tom Bonier, TargetSmart’s chief executive. “I’m running out of superlatives. . . . Those are voters who traditionally wouldn’t vote in an election like this.”
Polls show the runoff races are neck and neck, and experts say youth turnout may be critical in the elections pitting Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) against Raphael Warnock (D), and Perdue against Ossoff.
Biden’s narrow win in Georgia, where he became the first Democrat to win a presidential election since 1992, has become a motivating factor for voters on both sides to participate in the runoffs. The races were triggered in November under state rules because no candidate won at least 50 percent of the vote.
Young voters in Georgia have been motivated to participate in elections after realizing how influential their state could be nationally — and how contentious these contests can become, said Colt Chambers, 25, the chair of Georgia Young Republicans.
“Holding the line, maintaining that Senate majority, is a priority for of course all Republicans but a lot of young folks,” Chambers said.
Generation Z and younger millennial voters have been galvanized into greater political and electoral engagement, especially around national protests and marches around social issues and Trump’s divisive presidency, researchers say.
“A distinct youth politics has emerged in America, with its own issues like climate, racial justice and gun safety, and now with its own communications medium and idioms,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN, who has been tracking youth turnout. “What we are seeing with influencers and TikTok is new, different, constantly evolving — it’s all being invented in front of our eyes. It’s a new form of politics for sure.”
And experts say the unusual interest in a runoff election — typically seen as a procedural contest and one where voter participation tends to wane — that is taking place during the holidays is a sign of a deeper level of civic awareness and the distinct roles of Congress and the executive branch.
“I do think the fate of our country is at stake in this election, and I hope it turns out well,” said Amanda Reiling, 23, a recent University of Georgia graduate who voted early in Atlanta wearing her graduation cap.
Reiling voted for Ossoff and Warnock, adding that a Democratic-controlled Senate “would mean a lot more comprehensive transition of power, and a more conducive dynamic between the president-elect and congressional leaders.”
Years-long turnout efforts
Of those who have already cast their ballots for the runoffs, 90,000 had not voted in November — including those who were too young to vote, according to a Washington Post analysis of state data. The median age of that group of voters is younger, and a greater percentage is Black, compared with the rest of the early voters, data shows. Of that group, as many as 4,400 are 18 years old, according to The Post’s analysis.
Youth voter registration has spiked in the past four years, and young Black voters have been particularly influential in Georgia in both the 2018 gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Stacey Abrams and then Biden’s election in November, according to research by Tufts University’s CIRCLE, a nonpartisan organization focused on youth engagement.
And they have the potential to make a big difference in January: There are more than 500,000 Black Georgians under 30 who were registered to vote as of mid-December, making up a third of all young registered voters in Georgia, CIRCLE data shows.
“Runoffs historically have seen low turnout in Georgia, but this is definitely a different story,” said Royce Mann, 19, co-founder of Students for Ossoff and Warnock, which is holding in-person and virtual events to mobilize young voters. “I think we are going to prove to the world on January 5 that young voters, progressive voters in Georgia, are committed to seeing this through.”
For years, local groups have been working to register young voters, particularly voters of color and those in rural areas, and to help them recognize the importance of their vote.
Among the groups is the New Georgia Project, which has registered thousands of voters through nontraditional means, including holding events featuring high-profile video gamers, bringing gaming and food trucks to early voting sites, and running targeted ads on Spotify and YouTube.
At the group’s Zoom birthday parties for high school seniors, “the message is: ‘Hey, happy birthday, welcome to adulthood. You should register to vote,’ ” said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project.
“What happened in November was not a fluke,” Ufot said, referring to the youth turnout in November that helped deliver Biden’s victory. “It is absolutely possible that Georgia voters can do it again, that young people in Georgia can do it again,” she said.
Tok the Vote
In between videos about online dating, memes and fashion tips, 19-year-old TikTok influencer Mona Swain has been regularly reminding her 1.4 million followers about the role of the Senate in helping Biden enact liberal changes such as student loan debt relief.
In a recent video, for example, the Georgia-based influencer wears a reindeer antler hair band and walks to a mailbox to submit her absentee ballot while lip-syncing to a Megan Thee Stallion song. “GET OUT THERE AND VOTE GEORGIA!!!!!” the video caption reads.
“My page isn’t necessarily a political page,” she said in an interview. So “it speaks even more volumes” when she veers into political topics.
This month, a group of TikTok influencers, including Swain, held a get-out-the-vote campaign aimed at more than 5 million followers.
Their work resonates with Gen Z voters because of the quirks and humor unique to the platform, which gives rise to organic messages created by and for teens, said Colton Hess, 25, organizer of a voter-mobilization effort Tok the Vote. Those same quirks have also made it difficult for political campaigns to infiltrate the platform, Hess said.
That’s what made Ossoff’s TikTok debut this month notable, in turn generating more buzz about the runoff elections on TikTok. Multiple videos by Ossoff’s team have gone viral, and several have generated more than a million views each.
But the platform remains a youth-dominated space.
TikTok has provided a space for younger voters to discuss the issues of youth-led movements that have cropped up in recent years, including around gun control, climate change and Black Lives Matter, said Kristian Lundberg, associate researcher at CIRCLE who has been tracking the use of TikTok among young voters this year.
“It’s not just young people absorbing information from a candidate or a party,” Lundberg said. “What it is also — and in fact, probably more saliently — is young people talking to other young people on these channels. . . . The focus shouldn’t be on what the politicians are doing, the adults are doing, but also what the young people are doing, as well.”
Haisten Willis in Atlanta and Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.