Pandering to the Youth Vote Has Gotten Embarrassing
Don’t ask us to be ‘horny for tha polls.’ The world is literally burning.
My brother has been quarantined for eight days in a hotel on the University of Virginia’s campus after someone in his freshman dorm tested positive for Covid-19. Last week he texted me asking how to get an absentee ballot from our home state of Missouri — it’s the first election he’s eligible to vote in, and the government website is painfully convoluted. I sent him the PDF ballot request, thinking how absolutely psychotic my brother’s life is now: In his second week of college, he’s taking virtual chemistry lab in a sterilized hotel, and being chastised by administrators for acting irresponsibly after he was told to come to campus. The university is too much of a shitshow to facilitate his rights, yet the kid still wants to vote.
That night I logged into Animal Crossing, hoping to tap out of this hellscape for an hour and sell my turnips. It turns out you can’t escape ever these days because standing before me was an avatar Joe Biden, smiling and waving and selling… virtual yard signs.
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I’ve never used a yard sign in my real life because I’ve never had a yard and probably never will with the way things are going. Yet someone on the Biden campaign thought boomer merch in a video game was the key to solidify my vote. It reminded me of actress and comedian Ilana Glazer’s recent attempt to hype us up with her web series Cheat Sheet for the Voting Booth. Her tagline is “horny for tha polls,” and she dances through the interludes, encouraging us to get out there. The powers that be insist this is the way to persuade young people our vote matters; according to the New York Times, we are “notoriously finicky,” a “yet-to-be-cracked formula.”
I’ll admit I’ve definitely played into the ploys before. In 2016, I bought a baby blue pantsuit to match Hillary Clinton and called it my Nasty Woman ‘fit. I wore it proudly to vote for the very first time. This past January, I slapped the #hotgirlsforBernie Instagram filter across my forehead to snap selfies. Aw so fun, I thought, with a naive little smile, a political thirst trap. This was before 200,000 people died from a pandemic, before I feared for my parents’ health every day, lost both my jobs, and realized I’m inheriting a crusty, trashed Earth. Now the gimmicks aren’t cute or funny; they’re tone-deaf. Youth pandering becomes a big old “fuck you” when the past year has devastated every facet of our existence.
“We’re voting for Biden because lives, and our democracy, literally depend on it,” a friend who worked on Elizabeth Warren’s primary campaign told me. “Not because we’re… horny for the polls.”
The Kids can’t be horny for the polls because, across the country, they can’t even get to the polls. According to Arik Wolk, president of the College Democrats student group at Washington University in St. Louis, in 2018 there was a three-hour-long line to vote on campus. Classes were not canceled. Absentee ballots cast in Missouri also have to be notarized, and while Wolk said a few professor notaries volunteered at the student center, the process and limited hours may have deterred some voters. This year, there won’t be either of those options due to Covid regulations. WashU students are currently on campus, but as Wolk says, “My other concern is if in a few weeks WashU decides they need to send students home.” This would complicate ballot retrieval and mail-in voting.
Youth pandering becomes a big old “fuck you” when the past year has devastated every facet of our existence.
Young voter suppression isn’t new. Rachel Youn, a St. Louis-based artist, was 24 when they and other prospective voters were barred from casting ballots at a Missouri polling center in 2018, due to a new photo ID law. While Youn had three different kinds of identification, they did not have a Missouri license. “This particular poll worker was just very dismissive and unhelpful; it seemed like he didn’t really give a shit about me voting,” Youn told me. They went to another poll worker, who had them fill out affidavit paperwork to submit with the ballot (they later found out they were given the wrong form). “The poll workers just didn’t have all the information, and I also didn’t really know my rights in that situation. I was so flustered I forgot to take my ‘I Voted’ sticker,” Youn said. “It was not like a celebratory ‘I exercised my right today!’” The poll worker told them to call an office two weeks later to verify their vote had been counted. When Youn called, a worker told them he couldn’t check on it; they called again the next day and a different person finally confirmed it had been. “During those two weeks I was like, well I guess my vote never made it,” Youn said.
Brent J. Cohen, executive director of the youth-centered progressive organization Generation Progress, says elections have always disenfranchised young voters. “For all the talk about Gen Z and millennials and young people being apathetic, you can go back to the 1970s when they lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and 18–24-year-olds have always voted at a significantly lower rate than older people.” He notes that on top of the big life transitions young people face, whether it be entering the workforce or postsecondary schools, they’re also facing arbitrary processes to vote, particularly for out-of-state college students looking to get registered.
Yet despite structural barriers, Gen Z, millennials, and Gen X voted in larger numbers than baby boomers in the last presidential election and in the 2018 midterm. Last fall, tens of thousands of student activists marched in New York to rally around teen activist Greta Thunberg and protest climate change. In June, students were at the forefront of the movement to defund the police; students at the University of California are still protesting against campus police involvement, and a New York University student petition garnered 28,000 signatures in an attempt to eradicate NYPD presence on campus. Nupol Kiazolu, the president of the Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, is 20 years old. “Young people are not just enthusiastic. They are determined and engaged in a way that honestly I don’t think we’ve really seen before,” Cohen said.
Young people are hyperaware of our fucked up reality. We make memes to cope and relate to each other, not because we’re disengaged with the political rhetoric.
Earlier this summer, Moses Sumney tweeted, “My year of rest & radicalization,” parodying the title of Ottessa Moshfegh’s book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It went viral because it so perfectly articulated how so many of us feel this election year, and how 2020 has mobilized us into one of the largest social justice movements in history. A recent survey by CIRCLE at Tufts University shows 83% of young people now believe they have the power to change the country.
Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse American generation to date, according to Pew Research — and has adopted progressive politics to embrace this. The activist stance makes sense when you remember this is the generation raised on virally posted murder footage, police brutality, and rampant gun violence. In a 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association, 75% of Gen Z members stated mass shootings as a significant source of stress.
Young people are hyperaware of our fucked up reality. We make memes to cope and relate to each other, not because we’re disengaged with the political rhetoric. Personally, I don’t need to see Joe Biden in aviators outside Nook’s Cranny in Animal Crossing. I want health care and student loan forgiveness. I want the Earth to breathe again, and California’s sun to show. I want to trust my absentee ballot will make it to my home state. And then when the work is done, I want to dissociate and catch cicadas on my Switch.
“This is my anthem now,” my brother texted me from the Covid cesspool hotel in Charlottesville.
Attached was a song by Van Morrison: “Stranded.”