Young people gear up for the 2020 election, whether they can vote or not

By: - March 7, 2020 10:47 am

Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Updated, 10:03 a.m., 3/9/20

Zion Helms, a 17-year-old senior at Cass Tech High School in Detroit, won’t be able to vote in Tuesday’s presidential primary, but that isn’t stopping her from getting involved in the political process.

I’m very, very passionate about the way that people are treated, and I’ve always been that way. I think as time goes on, we get further and further away from actually caring about people, which is alarming,” Helms said. “And so I just sort of fell into politics by being passionate and ranting everyday in class, and that sort of made a wave for me.”

Zion Helms

Helms is the Cass Tech student representative for When We All Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization launched by former first lady Michelle Obama that works to increase participation in elections and close the race and age voting gap. Obama will be in Michigan March 27 to host a rally for When We All Vote volunteers, educators, and voting-age high school and college students.

Through the organization, Helms has helped 257 students in her graduating class get registered to vote by the November general election.

One-third of the states in the U.S. allow for 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election to register and vote in the primary*, including Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. 

Michigan law allows for teenagers to register to vote once they turn 17.5, but they will have to wait to cast a ballot until after they turn 18.

Proposal 3, which was passed in November 2018, has caused a spike in absentee ballots and is expected to increase voter participation in 2020, especially among young people. The law allows absentee voting for any reason, straight-ticket voting, voter registration up to the day of the election and the option to register to vote when applying for a driver license or state ID.

During the May 2019 election, ThinkProgress noted that the new voter laws had an impact on young voters. More than half of the 441 people who registered to vote on the day of the election were between 18 and 20 years old.

In August, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson launched the Collegiate Student Advisory Task Force to address challenges that would limit a young person’s ability to vote.

From Warren to Sanders

For Ben Altizer, an 18-year-old senior at Southgate Anderson High School in Southgate, this Tuesday will be a historic day for him as he goes to the polls to vote for the first time.

Altizer’s first choice candidate, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), withdrew from the race on Thursday, but that hasn’t discouraged him from participating in the primary.

Ben Altizer, with the Elizabeth Warren social media green avatar

“Going back to the first couple debates, my first pick has always been Elizabeth Warren. I was very disappointed when she dropped out of the race, though I respect her decision,” Altizer said. “I liked that she was so empathetic. She was an unabashed progressive, but she also knew how to communicate exactly what she planned to do if elected, and she was a powerful advocate for those who are too often left behind in discussions about politics.”

Now, Altizer says he will be voting for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“He’s not my first choice, or my second, in all honesty, but of the current candidates I believe he would be the best candidate,” he said.

Despite being young, Altizer has been engaged in politics for a few years and felt especially driven to get involved after seeing Donald Trump elected as president in 2016.

“My interest in politics, like a lot of people my age, started in full force around the time of the 2016 election, but I had been exposed to it my entire life. My grandpa was the school board president for years and I had been exposed to local politics there,” he said. “The 2016 election was what really drew me in though. Seeing someone like Donald Trump win was surreal to me in ninth grade, and I felt I needed to advocate for what I believed in, or else it may be taken away before I could vote.”

2018 midterms

There was a surge of youth voters, those 18 to 29 years old, who turned out all across the country to vote in the 2018 midterm elections.

According to data from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the percentage of youth voters in the U.S. doubled from 13% in 2014 to 28% in 2018.

In Michigan, 28.1% of eligible teenagers — 18- and 19-year-olds — cast ballots in 2018.

“The earlier young people are engaged in conversations about their community and conversations about issues that they care about, the more likely they are to participate and the more likely they are to participate into the rest of their life,” said CIRCLE Director of Impact Abby Kiesa. “So, it really does make sense that having a young person involved earlier in the election cycle means they might be more engaged later in the election cycle.”

Helms and Altizer both say that having open conversations in class about government has kick started their engagement in politics.

With only three days left until the presidential primary, there is still time to register to vote and cast your ballot in Michigan. Visit your city or township clerk’s office to register and vote all in one visit. If you have questions about how to register and vote, or experience any challenges along the way, the ACLU and its partners can help. Call with any questions or problems at (866) OUR-VOTE, or visit

Altizer said one of his favorite classes he has taken in high school was his Advanced Placement government class.

“The class had a lot of engaged kids in it, ranging from democratic socialists to a self proclaimed anarcho-capitalist,” he said. “The conversations were often about current events and dealing with how to fix issues. We had a lot of LGBTQ+ folks and minorities in there worried about civil rights, lots of girls worried about abortion and birth control access and nearly everyone was worried about gun violence and climate change.”

The Detroit vote

Helms said she is a moderate and wants to see former Vice President Joe Biden win the Democratic nomination. She adds it can be difficult for her when most of her peers and teachers are more liberal.

“I do feel that teachers, a lot of times, will try to sway students. I definitely think that, especially going to a school in the inner city where people have a collective group of experiences,” Helms said. “But I usually try to argue points that I may oppose, from the Democratic stance or whatever stance is being taken, by not being too extreme and by setting out facts.”

Detroit has gotten a lot of attention from presidential candidates this election season. Helms said it’s important that this is because there’s a genuine interest in helping Detroiters and the city.

Detroit | Susan J. Demas

“From what I heard to win the Democratic nominee election, you have to get the Black voter to win the Democratic nomination at all. And a lot of people don’t vote because they believe that their vote honestly doesn’t matter because nobody cares,” she said. “I am just very, very skeptical of the mass amounts of people who come to Detroit because there’s a large Black working class, and sell all these things that they’re going to do. When I just really believe you’re only here because you want the Black vote.”

Helms has been focused on issues of diversity and gentrification in urban areas, and she said it’s all been disheartening to watch.

“I think it’s all a game, but, of course, I’m still going to vote,” she said.

* Correction: This story has been updated with the correct information on 17-year-olds participating in primaries in one-third of states.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.