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Gen Z Jumps Into Politics Ahead Of Election Day

M. Spencer Green

Ashley Beck, 16, is a volunteer for Jackie Gordon’s campaign for the U.S. House seat left open by New York Congressman Peter King’s retirement.

“We're still a valuable member of the campaign because of our skills, because of our work ethic, because of our ability to network, to use social media. We have ideas that sometimes older people don't think of immediately,” Beck said.

Most of Beck’s cohort — Generation Z — is still too young to vote. Born after 1996, the oldest members of this newest generation are around 23 years old.

With Election Day around the corner, teens find themselves in a unique situation — their future will be shaped by candidates they’re not old enough to vote for.

A WSHU listener submitted a question to the 2020 Voter Guide survey about the upcoming election. She wanted to know how her children could get involved in this year’s election fever.

Young people have found ways to play a role in politics and government, and adults welcome the help.

Political campaigns need volunteers — of all ages. Beck said she started out researching donors for the campaign, and now she helps send out thank you notes to contributors.

Beck said this is her democracy, too, and she cares — about education policies that impact her high school, and fighting hunger in her North Babylon community.

“Even though we can't vote right now, this is still our country,” she said. “This is where we're growing up. And eventually, the people who are in office now are going to retire. And then we're going to be the next generation.”

And elected officials say they care about what Gen Z has to say.

Suffolk County Legislator Jason Richberg is 38 and the second youngest member of the Legislature. He said officials should listen to kids now, because it’s only a matter of time until they’re eligible to vote.

“We need to hear their voices,” Richberg said. “And if you don't hear their voices, then you don’t hear their priorities. Because that priority is going to come in five years.”

Recent voting trends suggest lawmakers should care about what Gen Z has to say. Voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was the highest it’s been in four decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That surge to the polls was driven by young voters between the ages of 18 and 29.

DawnMarie Kuhn, president of Suffolk County Young Republicans, said her interest in politics began when her high school government teacher brought some local politicians to class.

“One of the politicians, which was the Republican that I identified with, asked if anybody in the class wanted to get involved and volunteer for some community service hours,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn said she raised her hand and has been hooked on politics ever since.

“I went down to the Republican headquarters, stuffed envelopes, licked envelopes, helped with mailers, door knocking, phone calls,” she said.

She said social media was just taking off when she worked on her first political campaign. But now, Gen Z has an advantage, because they’re digital natives.

“There’s so many more efficient ways that government can work if we just ask our Gen Z counterparts, because they’ve grown up with technology their entire lives,” she said.

Now, Kuhn is chief of staff for county Legislator Anthony Piccirillo, who happens to be the youngest sitting member at 37.

Piccirillo said he wants more young people involved. He thinks they often get dissuaded by political corruption or incumbents with decades of experience.

“I think they want to see change right away,” Piccirillo said. “And unfortunately, in politics and government, it does take a little while to make that change that you want to see.”

Jaelyn McCracken, a 17-year-old senior at Islip High School, is a member of the Suffolk County Legislature Youth Leadership Caucus, where kids from 13 to 18 can network with mentors and volunteer in the community.

McCracken said she is one of only a few Black girls at her school. She said Youth Caucus is important to her because of its diversity.

“It's great because we can talk and understand each other, have respect for each other's culture, because the world is a melting pot,” she said. “So we basically need a medley of different representatives.”

Legislators, local business people and police officers meet with the Youth Caucus members once or twice a month to find out what’s important to them.

“A lot of people have something to mention about funding in their schools, how there’s not enough money for them to partake in certain activities or programs at their school.”

McCracken said programs like Youth Caucus give kids a voice even though they can’t vote yet.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.