Savannah’s youngest voters: The future doesn’t belong to ‘grandpas’

For first-time voters, choice of candidates in presidential race stokes apathy, ‘cringing’
Lauren Colby, 19, said she's “dreading more than looking forward to” her first vote in a presidential election. poses for a photo in front of the bookstore she works at on Wednesday, June 12, 2024 in Savannah, GA. (AJC Photo/Katelyn Myrick)

Credit: Katelyn Myrick/AJC

Credit: Katelyn Myrick/AJC

Lauren Colby, 19, said she's “dreading more than looking forward to” her first vote in a presidential election. poses for a photo in front of the bookstore she works at on Wednesday, June 12, 2024 in Savannah, GA. (AJC Photo/Katelyn Myrick)

SAVANNAH ― Lauren Colby has been eager to vote since the third grade when she cast a ballot in an elementary school mock election.

Now, at 19, her first trip to the polls for a presidential election is one she’s “dreading more than looking forward to.”

She is not excited about voting for either the Democratic incumbent, President Joe Biden, or the Republican challenger, former President Donald Trump.

“I’m going to be physically cringing no matter what with those options,” Colby said.

In an election where frustration, fear and ideology are expected to motivate voters more than policy positions and promises, Colby said her vote will likely be against one candidate rather than for the other. The anti-vote, Colby said, is an antidote shared by many in her peer groups, both at home in the Savannah suburb of Wilmington Island and on campus at Auburn University, where she’s entering her sophomore year this fall.

The choice between two “grandpas” — Biden is 81 and Trump just recently celebrated his 78th birthday — who espouse unimaginative ideas is disappointing, she said.

“Our future is one that doesn’t belong to these people,” she said. “Voters my age will either go to vote against one of them or won’t go to vote at all.”

Turnout in Chatham County is an increasing concern as the Nov. 5 election approaches. Voting surged in the 2020 election, as both presidential candidates attracted significantly more support than the nominees four years earlier. And young voters — 22 years old and younger — made up 4.2% of votes cast in Chatham in 2020, up from 3.8% in 2016, a change of about 1,300 voters.

Ryan Purvis with the Savannah Area Young Republicans said the club is fighting apathy in engaging the youngest voters. This far in advance of the election, “politics and the presidential race are the last things on the minds” of first-time voters, he said.

One advantage parties and campaigns have today in reaching young voters is through social media channels and text messaging, Purvis said. He expects a ramp-up in engagement in the months ahead and believes young voters won’t stay home in November.

“Young people are either 100% in the tank for Trump or 100% not going to vote for him,” he said. “What we’ve told the young ones is this: You may not like Donald Trump, but how did you feel about President Trump? We try to remind them of the state of the country during his presidency.”

Another key get-out-the-young-vote strategy in Chatham is to mobilize on college campuses. The Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah State University and Georgia Southern University’s Armstrong campus have a combined 20,000 students, and while some vote in their home counties, many are registered in Chatham.

Savannah State is a particularly politically engaged campus. The historically Black university is a popular campaign spot for Democratic candidates. First lady Jill Biden, two-time gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock have participated in events there in recent years.

Hannah Holliman, a Savannah State senior, is bracing for a surge of political advocacy once classes return in August. She remembers the run-up to the 2022 election, when Abrams and Warnock were both on the ballot. Canvassers went door to door in the residence halls to engage students and sign up unregistered voters, and the election demanded more attention than even the Tiger football team in the weeks before the vote.

“It built very quickly,” she said. “There were programs and rallies and advertisements.”

Hannah Holliman, a senior at Savannah State University, sees low enthusiasm among young voters as the Nov. 5 presidential election nears. “Very few people I talk to are excited about either candidate,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Holliman)

Credit: Hannah Holliman

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Credit: Hannah Holliman

She’s skeptical of whether this year’s election can generate the same energy as the 2022 vote. Biden doesn’t connect emotionally with young voters, she said, and many of her peers say they’ve been “deceived” by Democratic politicians who have underdelivered on promises made in the 2020 and 2022 election cycles.

They cite increases in the cost of living, a lack of improvement in the educational system and Biden’s limited success in addressing student loan forgiveness, Holliman said.

“Everyone is standoffish,” she said. “Very few people I talk to are excited about either candidate.”

Without a leader young voters can believe in, both Holliman and Colby expect family influences will play an outsized role in whether college-age voters go to the polls in November and for whom they will vote. Both grew up in families where politics and national and world affairs were discussed around the dinner table. Holliman’s father is a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, so she heard politically charged discussions on a daily basis.

Colby comes from a conservative-leaning family, but one that encouraged critical thinking. She did consult her mother on candidates ahead of voting in the May primary, but she is of her own mind about the top-of-the-ticket races on the November ballot.

She said the biggest turnoff to young voters about today’s politics is the trend toward allegiance to a political party. In her view, both parties have become more ideological and less receptive to new or different perspectives. She cites the advice of George Washington, who warned against closely aligning with narrow political agendas.

“This ‘ride or die’ thinking is not good for the country,” she said. “We need to move toward looking at policies and what candidates want to do rather than just pick a party and stick with it forever.”