WHEN SHAELEIGH SEVERINO, a 23-year-old Dominican woman and former City Council candidate, suspended her campaign for New York’s 32nd district in 2020, it looked like her work in politics was coming to an end. The then Democratic candidate had worked tirelessly to make her campaign’s distinction stick: she was “an advocate, not a politician,” and this belief drove her as far as it could in trying to flip a longtime red seat blue.
Her campaign, Severino for City Council, had multiple qualities that made it pierce through who typically sits in District 32’s seat. It was a solely grassroots-funded campaign and―had it succeeded in its goal―would have made history in electing the first Black woman, Afro-Latina and Democrat for the district, as well as the youngest council member citywide. (District 32’s current City Council member, Joann Ariola, is the first woman to be elected in the district.) But after months of campaigning, Severino and her team realized they no longer had the resources to continue the race.
“There’s money in politics. The older you are, the more networks and connections you have,” Severino said. “People are going to trust you just based on how you are not Gen Z.”
She believes funding is one of the biggest barriers to running electoral campaigns for Generation Z, people born between the late-1990s and early 2010s, who Severino says have dealt with “back to back disparities” such as housing, health insurance and student debt. It’s not surprising to Severino however, that two years after running her own campaign, public discourse has begun to focus more on what Gen Z offers the electorate.
“We saved the Democratic party’s ass,” Severino said of Gen Z voters, who are considerably more Democratic than any other age group. “Older generations don’t believe that we actually care. What we showed them was that we are paying attention. We do care.”
The 2022 midterm elections in November sparked fresh conversations about Gen Z’s political pull, with the midterms having the second highest voter turnout among voters under 30 in at least three decades, and the first Gen Z congressman, Maxwell Frost, who is Afro-Cuban, elected in Florida. Young people preferred Democrats by a 28-point margin this past November, according to CIRCLE, which helped the party prevent a previously predicted ‘red wave.’
“We lack historically showing up to the polls,” Severino said. On average, only 20% of young people who are eligible to vote cast ballots in midterm elections. “But voting in local elections is essential for our democracy. Local elections impact you directly, they determine whether there is garbage on your street or police officers in your schools. That’s why I continue to vote.”
Severino’s ongoing passion for politics grows from her experience growing up as an Afro-Latina in NYC, where she witnessed stark economic inequalities amongst Black and Latinx students in her school district. Raised by her two immigrant parents, Severino followed in the footsteps of her mother, who was a community organizer. It was the norm for politics to be centered in their household.
“I’ve been organizing since the age of nine,” said Severino, who focused primarily on immigration work alongside her mother―a personal echo of her parents’ migration journeys from the Dominican Republic. She later became a paralegal handling immigration cases, and is now based in Washington as a nonprofit executive for the Afro-Latino Association for Policy and Advocacy (ALAPA), a resource center advocating for legislation that positively impacts Afro-Latinos in the US and the Caribbean.
“We all have a role and a place in the movement and it just so happens that this is mine,” she said.
GEN Z IS BECOMING an increasingly sought out voting bloc as both parties attempt to shape the age group’s impact on the electorate, a strategy seen similarly with Latinx voters. As the largest minority group in the country, Latinx voter turnout in last year’s midterms was “key in clinching contentious races in Florida, Illinois, California, and Nevada – and helping Latino candidates make history,” NPR reported. Combined, Gen Z and Latinx voting trends could define a new direction for which core issues will drive each election cycle, as well as attitudes toward political parties.
“Instead of prescribing to a major party and saying, 'You are a member of a Democratic or Republican Party, so I'm going to vote for you,' they're asking the question, 'What are you going to do for my community? And how are you going to make that promise into reality?'” CIRCLE Newhouse Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg told NBC.
Gun violence, abortion and student debt cancellation were primary issues that influenced young people to vote in this year’s midterms. Likewise, Latinx women voters defied pre-election surveys that predicted a growing appeal toward Republican candidates: Nearly 70% of Latinas cast ballots for Democratic House candidates. They were also twice as likely to identify abortion and reproductive rights as the most important issue determining their vote this year.
“There was a lot at stake this election,” said Natalia Acevedo, a 21-year-old college student from New Jersey. “Voting is one of the most important things to me. I study government, and the only way that a government can actually work is if people participate in it as a collective.”
Acevedo, who is El Salvadorian and Puerto Rican, decided to study government after witnessing how legislation impacted her family. “It skewed how I view the government. I see two roads; on one, people on the outside are working to deconstruct our system so it can work for everyone. On the other, people on the inside need to change things from within before the people on the outside can be let in.”
A number of her family members immigrated to the United States, with one who she says experienced a robbery at a Mexico border. “I remember hearing them telling a story to a cab driver about how they were trafficked,” Acevedo said.
She believes that in some ways, the electoral system was “set to fail” because of accessibility issues. In the past, she has helped her parents research voting candidates and her grandmother with citizenship paperwork. “If voting is so important to why our government works, then why isn’t [Election Day] a holiday?” she said.
When it comes to eligible young people who choose not to vote because they are cynical of its meaning and impact, Acevedo says missing out on local elections is one of the biggest drivers. “If you don’t like what is happening now, vote when your vote has more weight. That is definitely the midterms and the primaries,” she said. “We need to start from the beginning, not the end.”
GEN Z’S PLACEMENT IN deciding the future of the political landscape is a unique one. Unlike Millennials―who came of age during the Great Recession―Gen Z was on track to inherit a strong economy with record-low unemployment, according to Pew Research. Then COVID-19 reshaped the social, political and economic landscape.
“Instead of looking ahead to a world of opportunities, Gen Z now peers into an uncertain future,” Pew Research reported in 2018. The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in 2020 along with the overturn of Roe v. Wade this year only intensified this uncertainty.
“Young voters, both Democratic and Republican, are exceedingly concerned about rights―and not just their own,” the New York Times reported. Gen Z is also more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation. “A defining attribute of young Americans today is the degree to which they stand up and fight for those even more vulnerable than they are.”
“It is a huge privilege to be able to vote,” said Jessica Zavala, a college student from Salt Lake City. “I always remember that I am not only voting for me, but for the people who can’t vote whose voices deserve to be heard.”
Zavala is a first generation daughter of Peruvian immigrants. Despite participating regularly in elections, she opposes the electoral college. “My parents come from a country where the popular vote is what’s used for elections. The electoral college stems from racism and needs to be abolished immediately.”
Recent years have seen stirring debates about the electoral college. “Commentators today tend to downplay the extent to which race and slavery contributed to the Framers’ creation of the Electoral College,” the Atlantic reported. “Of the considerations that factored into the Framers’ calculus, race and slavery were perhaps the foremost.”
For Zavala, however, there’s another way to address what she views as an overall representation failure for more marginalized groups even within the Latino community. “We want to help better this country and this world,” she said. “I feel like the best way to do that is starting off small in our communities, including our families. Because of the way that our culture has worked for so long that women and femme Latines aren’t encouraged to speak out and have their own voice, because that is seen as a sign of rebellion.”
Zavala says generational trauma, which can show itself in the form of learned behaviors, may sometimes come out as machismo and outdated ideas about sexuality and gender in Latinx households. “Many people grow up thinking what their leaders and parents and adult figures teach them and refuse to open their minds to other points of view,” she said.
“We need to be imaginative with the change we want to see,” said Jaymi Lead Grullón, an Afro-Latinx writing assistant born and raised in Queens, New York. She has voted in nearly every election since registering at 18 years old, but emphasizes that the electoral process is flawed. “There should be a wider campaign on getting young people to vote, and to learn history as to who was historically disenfranchised to vote and who is still disenfranchised today.”
Grullón, who is second-generation, views her participation in politics as only a portion of her civic duty. “Bills are super hard to pass to Congress, and it’s designed for a ‘reason,’ but I think grassroots organizing is the way to go. Because of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, there are a lot of important issues on the line including the rights to contraception and even interracial marriage.”
According to Circle, young voters were the only age group to cite abortion as the issue that most influenced their vote, with 80% of youth who want abortion to be legal voted for a Democrat; and 89% of youth who want it to be illegal voted for a Republican. They were also the most likely to say that President Biden was legitimately elected in 2020 after former president Donald Trump claimed the election results that took him out of office were fraudulent, leading to the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6.
“I think what happens next is going to be the most important part,” Severino said, referencing Trump’s plans to run a third presidential campaign in 2024.
“We want to see change in our lifetime,” Severino said. “I think we are taught that our Gen Z dream is too big, but it’s not. We can have free healthcare for everyone. We can support people economically to have roofs over their heads…"
"As Gen Z, what are we going to do about that?”