When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Sophia Woodrow was 14 years old. Four years later, she was fighting to mobilize young voters in Georgia for the 2020 election and then the runoff to decide control of the Senate.
Donors poured nearly half a billion dollars into the Georgia runoff races, but the foundation of the victories that Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won—Democrats now have majorities in both houses of Congress, so critical new legislation on issues such as climate change and healthcare has a chance to pass—was grassroots organizing. Black organizers such as Stacey Abrams played a crucial role. So did youth organizers, some as young as 13.
Woodrow’s interest in politics grew after the 2016 election. “That’s when I realized that if I wanted change to happen, and I wanted the America that I lived in to reflect the people in it and the values that I held, that I had to step up and actually get involved,” she says. In the fall of 2020, she started at Stanford University, but because the pandemic had closed the campus, she stayed in her Georgia home and became deeply involved in campaigning there through Future Coalition, a national youth-led network of organizers. The work on the runoffs began immediately after the general election. “Calls started happening as soon as that first crazy election night,” she says. “A lot of it was just trying to organize around okay, what do we want to do? What is the best strategy to get people out to vote again?”
Part of the strategy, she says, was to make get-out-the-vote events as fun as possible. At “Drag to the Polls,” drag queens helped boost early voting numbers. Organizers also held a block party with local vendors and a drive-in screening of a John Lewis documentary. “It was all in an effort to target people that wouldn’t necessarily have voting on their mind,” she says.
Other youth-led organizations also engaged young voters through TikTok and Instagram, along with texting, phone calls, and working with voters to help “cure” ballots with issues such as missing or mismatched signatures. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization that advocates for political action on climate change, worked with volunteers through its political action committee, which sent a million texts to voters under 35, made 1.2 million phone calls, and registered more than 3,000 young voters. Plus1Vote, another youth-led organization, sent 2 million texts and shared digital tools, such as a popular Instagram filter that plasters the word “vote” on your face.
Many organizers were particularly motivated by climate change, since major systemic change needs to happen now for the world to avoid the worst climate impacts—and without control of the Senate, the Biden administration would have been much more limited in how much it could accomplish. “The less action we take, the more impossible it becomes for us to actually reduce our emissions in a manner that is in coordination with the science,” says Saad Amer, the 26-year-old cofounder of Plus1Vote. “I think that what we’ve seen in this election is young people understanding that reality and voting with that reality in mind.”
Amer began working in the environmental movement as a 13-year-old. “I noticed that there was this major gap and this need to really connect climate and voting,” he says. The organization launched before the 2018 midterms to help elect women of color to Congress, and in 2020 it ramped up its work in Georgia as soon as it was clear that the runoffs were happening.
“Digital campaigns can transform into real-world impact, particularly with young people,” he says. “And when you relate it to the issue of climate, I think climate justice is central to what the younger generation wants to accomplish. It’s central to what my life’s mission is. Organizing around elections is a way to ignite people to take direct action and then elect people, the policymakers who are receptive to our demands so that we can ultimately pass the most progressive climate policies that we’ve ever seen.”
Young organizers and voters are increasingly aware of the power that they have, Amer says. He remembers the moment he learned that, in 2000, the presidential election had been decided by just 537 votes. “I was like, ‘Oh, I could have gotten out that many votes,'” he says. “A lot of young people that I know could have gotten out that many votes in Florida. And that would have totally redefined the globe on climate policy. So I think young people were really paying attention this year.” Around one in five youth in Georgia voted in the runoff election who hadn’t voted in the general election, he says.
“Oftentimes, young people are overlooked in this process, as are people of color,” he says. “And I think that demographic was really leading the way and was the deciding factor of this election. If young people and people of color did not turn out in the numbers that we did, yeah, this election would have gone a different way, and we would not have any climate policy as a result.”