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Gen Z activists target youth ahead of midterms with #WhyDoYouVote campaign

"Political change needs to happen and young people need to drive that change,” said environmental leader Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, 18.
Gen Z activists star in a PSA campaign directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky to get young people to vote in the midterm elections.
Gen Z activists star in a PSA campaign directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky to get young people to vote in the midterm elections.Courtesy Sierra Club

Youth voter turnout has been historically low. A new online public service campaign starring fifteen Generation Z activists from across the country is jumping on a recent surge in political activism to urge young people to vote in the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

The #WhyDoYouVote PSA teamed up March For Our Lives organizers such as Parkland shooting survivors David Hogg, Delaney Tarr and L.A. high school student Edna Chavez with other young leaders in the immigrant rights, LGBTQ, racial equality and environmental movements. In the video, each young person explains why they're casting a ballot.

"I'm not voting for Republicans or Democrats, I'm voting for gun safety," says Hogg in the PSA.

Only 17 percent of voters between the ages of 18 to 24 voted in the 2014 midterm election; among young Latinos it was less than 13 percent, according to the Census.

Yet the number of young people who have attended a demonstration or march, or have engaged in other advocacy efforts such as signing petitions has tripled since 2016, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies young Americans’ political engagement.

In fact, civil engagement among people ages 18-24 went up from 5 percent to 15 percent in less than two years.

Turning youth activism into political action

An analysis by TargetSmart, a Democratic polling firm, found that youth voter participation is on the rise ahead of this year’s midterm elections.

Young people ages 18-29 are registering to vote at a higher rate since February following the Parkland school shooting, where 17 people, a majority of them students, were killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. By July, “the share of youth registrants nationwide had increased by 2.16 percent,” according to available data.

An updated analysis suggests that the spike in youth voter registration has persisted since then, especially in key battleground states like Arizona and Florida.

Voter turnout for this age group also tripled during primary elections in states like Colorado and North Dakota. On average, youth voter turnout during primary elections has gone up 4 percent nationwide, according to TargetSmart.

But the question is whether young people will vote in significant numbers in the midterms.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who directed the video, still remembers the first time he ever voted in an election, nearly 30 years ago.

"It was an incredible feeling because it was another gateway that opened up in my path to being an adult," the "Black Swan" director told NBC News. "But it seems like that same feeling is not completely out there for many young voters."

Aronofsky partnered with the Sierra Club, the grassroots environmental organization, to launch the PSA. He said the spike in youth activism inspired him to highlight the voices of young people who are currently at the forefront of advocacy movements that have gotten national attention in the past months.

'Go out and vote'

Immigrant rights activist Sandra Cornejo, 20, told NBC News she participated in the PSA to send the message she tells her friends.

“If you are my friend and you do care about me, you will go out and vote,” said Cornejo, 20, the only DACA recipient in the video campaign. She works at The Puente Human Rights Movement, a grassroots organization based in Phoenix.

Dreamers and immigration rights activists started mobilizing politically ahead of the midterm elections after many felt disappointed over Congress’ failure to provide a long-term solution for DACA recipients following Trump's decision to end the program, which is being battled in the courts.

“Young people tend to be very opinionated, but they don’t necessarily know how to turn their opinions into action,” said Lisbeth Chavarria, 18, a Nicaragua-born high school senior from Miami, Florida who is active in the immigrant rights organizations like United We Dream and Dream Defenders.

"Life experiences are the greatest tool for politicization, especially for a lot of people who have experienced injustice,” she added. “This is the most important work I’ve done in my life.”

For Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the threat posed by climate change and the need for action inspired him to take part in the campaign. Young people, especially Latinos, rate the environment as one of the most pressing voter issues.

“It was super inspiring to see other young people like myself also starring in the PSA and seeing that I’m not the only one doing this kind of work,” said Martinez, 18, youth director at Earth Guardians, a Colorado-based organization that works to empower young environmental and social leaders.

Eymhy Corpus, a Sierra Club organizer, said her team in Las Vegas, Nevada has gone out to schools and even bars to register more voters, especially young Latinos.

“We’re a community with large numbers," Corpus told NBC in Spanish. "Voting is a tool we can use to fight for social justice.”

Voting is just the beginning, said Martinez. He's now a lead plaintiff in a youth-led lawsuit against the federal government to try to prove that authorities failed to protect the atmosphere for future generations.

“Voting is a great first start, but that’s not the only way to get politically involved,” said Martinez. "I see it all the time, politicians that are just worried about what’s happening on the short term. That’s why political change needs to happen and young people need to drive that change.”