Young voters helped decide the 2020 election in Pa. Will they turn out for a Biden-Trump rematch?

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Nora Zangana, left, 17, a senior at Brashear High School, and Ismael Manrique, 18, a senior at Pittsburgh Sci-Tech, talk during Youth Vote Huddle on Friday, March 15, 2024, at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh - Main in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The 2024 presidential election is shaping up as a repeat, but some voters are experiencing it for the first time. Thousands of young people are aging into the voter rolls this year, arriving to a political and societal landscape that has even seasoned voters scratching their heads.

“Horrible,” said Nora Zangana, a senior at Pittsburgh Sci-Tech, to describe how she feels about voting this year for the first time. “I’m scared. I don’t know what’s happening.”

While gaining the right to vote can inspire, some teenage voters are put off by the state of current events in America and the world. With the presidential election likely to come down to a few states decided by narrow margins, the contest between two elderly candidates could be defined by how many young voters go to the polls — and how many stay home.

“Seeing what’s happening in the world leaves a mark and it drains the passion,” said Ismael Manrique, another Sci-Tech senior who is newly eligible to cast a vote.

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A rematch at the top of the ticket between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump could contribute to a dulled youth vote this year, said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political science professor at Chatham University.

“The fact that they’re now looking at a rematch between two candidates that do not excite them has them very tuned out,” Sweet-Cushman said. “They don’t feel like there’s something here for them.”

Manrique said it’s rare to hear talk about voting and elections at school. “Talking about voting is not a thing with this generation.”

Youth registration anemic

Turnout among eligible voters aged 18 to 29 has historically been below the average compared to other age groups, but it has increased sharply since the 2016 election. The cohort turned out at 50% in 2020, according to a Tufts University research center, largely backing Biden and contributing to his narrow victories in several swing states. That participation rate was up 11 points from 39% in 2016.

In Pennsylvania, turnout among 18-to-29 year-olds was 54% in 2020, higher than all but just 10 other states.

A voter registration analysis by The Civics Center suggests spotty interest so far among the newest eligible voters. Just 29% of Allegheny County 18-year-olds were registered to vote at the end of December. In some school districts the rate was under 15%.

“They’re all very aware of what’s happening, but how motivated they will be to get out to vote, I will be curious to see,” said Michele Halloran, an AP government teacher at Allderdice High School, in Squirrel Hill South. Halloran, who has been teaching for 16 years, said there is a distinctly different energy this year compared to 2008, when “everybody seemed to be excited.”

“It’s your job to fix the mess that we have created,” Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Wayne Walters told students at a youth voting event in Oakland on March 15. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Sweet-Cushman said resignation among young voters is fueled in part by candidates’ lack of focus on the issues they consider the most important.

“Young people are exceptionally concerned about climate change … and that doesn’t seem to be centered in any of the election rhetoric right now,” Sweet-Cushman said. “They’re concerned about the war in Gaza … and don’t feel like either party is listening to them in that regard.”

Halloran said she doesn’t think many students are very excited about this year’s candidates, “but I think there’s a lot of students that realize the importance. I think there’s going to be a reluctance and a feeling of: There’s an importance to it.”

‘Vital to be excited’ about voting

Halloran and a team of eight students are working to get those lagging voter registration numbers up ahead of November, as part of a national voter registration initiative called My School Votes, an offshoot of First Lady Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote program.

Halloran said her group of students has registered 45 of their peers so far and plans to contact all of the approximately 100 others who are eligible.

One of the students helping organize the effort is Naomi Segel, a senior who may be an outlier: She is excited about voting this year. She’s been interested in politics for a long time and comes from a family “where electing progressive candidates is very vital.”

“It’s not the most exciting thing in the world to have the same exact options as four years ago, but it still feels like because of what the choices represent and the future represents, it’s so vital to be excited about voting,” Segel said.

She said, though, that it’s hard to spread her enthusiasm to some of her classmates.

“There’s a common sentiment of being not excited or not informed or engaged at all in the process,” Segel said. “I think it’s especially true of my generation … being so numb to it at this point that it all feels political and insincere.”

Choosing ‘flawed human beings’

The presidential rematch is dampening enthusiasm from even some of the most engaged young voters. Jesse Milston, a University of Pittsburgh freshman from New Jersey, became interested in politics during the 2018 midterms and spent some of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown learning more. “What else are you going to do?”

Michael Wells, 16, a sophomore at Pittsburgh Sci-Tech, listens to other high school students talk about social and racial justice issues during Youth Vote Huddle on March 15, at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh main branch in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Milston is a member of the Pitt College Republicans and said he’s excited to vote for his party’s candidates — except one.

“I will probably be voting for the entire [Republican] slate,” Milston said. “Trump is the one person who I’m thinking it over.

“I am not a huge fan of either candidate running” for president. “They are both in my opinion flawed human beings. Picking between them is rough.”

Though Milston will spend some of the summer and fall volunteering for congressional candidates, he said most of his peers feel “existential dread” about the election.

“I think it is completely and totally understandable for people to be like, ‘this is going to sh__ man, this is awful,’” he said. “The question then is, are they going to vote?”

At a March event to promote voting among Pittsburgh Public Schools students, Superintendent Wayne Walters had a blunt message: “Your job is to fix the mess that we have created.”

One student at the event, Michael Wells, has noticed that mess.

“Honestly, a couple weeks ago I started to think. I saw the retirement ages were going to be increased, housing costs are going up, inflation is up,” said Wells, who at 16 is not eligible to vote this year. “It’s honestly just making our future look super bleak.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at

Stephanie Strasburg contributed reporting.

This story was fact-checked by Miranda Jeyaretnam.

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