Many young voters don’t pay attention to local races; their peers want that to change

Atlanta-area residents under 30 are working to encourage participation among other young people in the November elections
Young voters are among the most uniformed group about candidates in the Atlanta mayor's race. John Spink /

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Young voters are among the most uniformed group about candidates in the Atlanta mayor's race. John Spink /

Mina Turabi became determined to make change by whatever means necessary after her friend was killed a decade ago in Augusta.

Turabi, who was 17 at the time, started protesting against gun violence. Activism turned into political involvement as she began working on local and statehouse campaigns — first in Augusta, then in Atlanta.

And after high school teacher Alfred “Shivy” Brooks announced that he was running for Atlanta City Council, Turabi, now 27, felt a need to help his campaign win because he protested alongside her against racial injustice last summer.

“Growing up, I never really looked into local politics because it always seemed like a waste of time,” said Turabi, who is field director for Brooks’ campaign. “I never really learned about the mayor having power, about City Council having power until it affected me and I was like: ‘This is what I care about.’”

Recent polls commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that, of likely voters in Atlanta’s mayoral race, the 18-29 age bracket had the highest number of undecided participants. The group also had the highest percentage of people uninformed about the mayoral race, with 29% responding “not at all” to the question of how closely they were following the election.

In a race where 44% of young people polled are undecided on a candidate, the demographic holds a significant amount of potential power — if they show up at the polls.

A study at Portland State University found that people aged 65 and older are 15 times more likely to vote than those 18-34. Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie said that largely a consequence of younger people having less experience.

“With elections, they’re less knowledgeable about the issues and as they get older, they’re going to pick up more on the issues and how they affect their daily lives and develop a more vested interest in what’s going on,” Gillespie said. “Developmentally, they’re still putting their lives together.”

In the 2020 presidential election, however, voters aged 18 to 29 turned out in droves: 15% of Georgia voters in the general election were born after 1991, data analysis from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Now, young people are looking to capitalize on last year’s success in local elections with no statewide races on the ballot.

“We really saw how turnout affected not only local races, but the entire state of Georgia last year, and that was because young people recognized their power and they came to the polls and they voted,” said Rhea Wunsch, a sophomore at Georgia State University who is working on Councilmember Natalyn Archibong’s campaign for City Council President. “You still see that same energy going into local elections.”

Sadie McIntyre got into politics when she was 14 by joining her high school’s Young Democrats chapter. Now a high school senior, she is working on Dontaye Carter’s Sandy Springs mayoral bid and has volunteered with Atlanta Councilman Andre Dickens’ mayoral campaign.

“I love local politics, I very much prefer it,” McIntyre said. “The candidates are just simply more accessible, ... and it’s the closest to home, it’s where you can see day-to-day change.”

The AJC poll found that affordable housing (39.7%) is the most important issue for likely voters aged 18 to 29, followed by crime (34.0%) and income inequality (16.3%).

For more young people to get involved, McIntyre believes they need better access to information.

“I don’t think they necessarily understand what the people in most positions do,” she said. “Making that information more accessible to young people would make it a lot easier for people to be involved.”

Students promote education, involvement among their peers

Young Democrats of Atlanta President Chase Stell, who moderated a mayoral forum and organized a city council networking event in September, noted that young people often don’t see how major issues relate to city races.

But their eagerness and flexible schedules make them ideal campaign workers, Stell said.

“Young people have the energy that it takes to do the groundwork on these campaigns, so this is a perfect group of folks that you want involved,” Stell said.

Gillespie explained that education is a necessary component for young people to turn out: “The people who tend not to get reminded to vote are those who have historically low levels of voter turnout.”

In that spirit, students have engaged in efforts to promote their peers’ awareness of city races, including promoting voter registration efforts on college campuses, encouraging heightened social media usage and organizing speaker series to bring candidates to the students.

A prominent new turf for these efforts is Emory University.

The school and its surrounding property were annexed into Atlanta in 2018, which will now qualify thousands of students that live on Emory’s Atlanta campuses to vote in November’s citywide elections

The Young Democrats of Emory has hosted council candidates and published in-depth guides to city races on social media to get students involved. Members of the organization have also canvassed with groups such as the DeKalb Democrats to encourage others to participate.

“Last November was insane, and seeing the momentum build up and how excited Emory students were to get involved, I did not want that to die off for local elections,” said Eden Yonas, a senior who runs the school’s Young Democrats chapter.

Candidates like Doug Shipman, who is running for City Council President, and Alex Wan, who is running for the District 6 City Council position, gave speeches at the school to crowds of a couple dozen students each.

Wunsch, the Georgia State sophomore working for Archibong’s campaign, believes that steps like these will help young people better understand the impact of local politics. She said she hopes as younger candidates run in the future, more young voters will turn out because seeing politicians their age “feels a lot more personal.”

“For young people to care about the races, they need to know that these are the people who are making decisions in our everyday lives,” said Wunsch, who is studying public policy. “People need to know what their county commissioners do, what their state legislators do, what the city council does, and they need to recognize that this is where those laws will start.”

AJC poll results from respondents ages 18-29

Mayoral candidates:

Reed, 21%

Moore, 19%

Gay, 7%

Brown, 4%

Dickens, 1%

How closely are you following the race:

Very, 14%

Somewhat, 24%

Not very, 33%

Not at all, 29%

Most pressing issue facing Atlanta:

Affordable housing, 40%

Crime, 34%

Income inequality, 16%

Traffic congestion, 6%