For young Americans casting their ballots for the first time, the 2020 presidential election is a particularly unusual way to begin their political journeys as voters.
With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the traditional election process, and misinformation spreading like wildfire on digital platforms, this year’s first-time voters encounter a range of obstacles that are not necessarily representative of previous elections.
In order to help young Americans navigate the myriad challenges ahead of the 2020 election, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs and the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise Voter Project hosted a virtual town hall Tuesday evening.
The hour-long livestream event "Face the Facts: Election 2020 Youth Town Hall" featured conversations with first-time voters, fact checkers, and professional journalists who spoke about the importance of voting and how to combat misinformation in today’s digital landscape.
Here are some key takeaways from "Face the Facts."
1. Young people care about policies.
In a discussion with Savannah Sellers, host of NBC's Stay Tuned, four young Americans talked about the issues they care about as soon-to-be and first-time voters from both sides of the political spectrum.
Jackson Carter from Columbia, Tennessee, is passionate about the federal court system, while Los Angeles-based Cassia Ramelb is particularly concerned about climate and racial justice.
Malick Mercier, a junior at Ithaca College, said that young voters aren’t going to “go by a party, but instead go by policy.” Mental health is a key issue that Mercier cares about, but one that is often overlooked by politicians, which was the case during the Sept. 29 presidential debate.
“The debate just wasn’t about people and the policy, and how it impacts people’s lives on the ground, which I feel like really, really matters especially in this moment when there are so many people unemployed and so many people suffering,” he said.
2. Be smart about the way you consume news.
Throughout the town hall, speakers emphasized the need to acknowledge different perspectives and get news from both sides of the political spectrum. MediaWise ambassadors also provided tips for how to spot misinformation in articles, photos, and videos.
Zuna Ramos from Boston University suggested “lateral reading,” the practice of opening up multiple tabs when learning about a topic, as a way to diversify your sources, gain new perspectives, and avoid bias.
When addressing misinformation on social media, beauty and lifestyle YouTube creator Cydnee Black encouraged people to stick with the facts, and prioritize your relationships when engaging with friends and family.
“Be patient, be accurate, and most importantly be OK with not trying to change the other person’s opinion,” she said. “It’s way more important to actually listen and make sure the other person feels heard, because when we feel heard we feel ready to listen as well.”
3. Local politics are extremely important.
Many speakers at the town hall stressed the importance of participating in local politics, which often have a more direct impact on people’s lives and also determine the political leaders in coming years. Journalist Peter Hamby, who hosts Good Luck America on Snapchat, encouraged young people to volunteer for their statewide, local, and city council campaigns.
“After the election, take this excitement, this energy, this anger, frankly, and this passion that we’ve seen in the last four years and start to think about other races that can have more of an impact,” Hamby said.
Ramelb, who is 17 years old, won’t be old enough to vote this election, but that hasn’t stopped her from being politically involved in her local community through voter registration drives, political events, and talking to the adults around her.
“All the time, I'm starting conversations about getting registered and looking up your local and state elections, not just presidential,” she said.
4. You don’t have to be a political nerd to vote.
One of the main reasons US voter turnout rates are so low, especially among youth, is because many people feel under-informed and disengaged from what’s going on in the country. But you don’t need to be a political nerd to vote, said Thanasi Dilos, co-founder of Civic Unplugged.
“Look up who’s running in your district, in your school board,” he said. “Even if it’s someone small, reach out to them and send them an email. Don’t be scared of politicians — they’re there to work for you, so make them work for you, make them answer your questions.”
As she wrapped up the town hall, Sellers echoed the importance of doing research on candidates in her advice to first-time voters in America.
“Knowledge is power, especially right now,” she said. “Do the research for yourself, figure out what you care about, and see where candidates stand on your issues.
“And then I would just say, don’t be discouraged,” she added. “I know there’s a lot of negative talk right now about this election ... but no matter what, you are part of history by voting for the first time and by participating in this election.”
Global Citizen and HeadCount have teamed up to launch Just Vote, a campaign mobilizing young Americans to register to vote ahead of the 2020 election and beyond. As part of the campaign, your favorite artists and entertainers are offering exclusive experiences, performances, and memorabilia — and they can only be unlocked once eligible voters check their voter registration status. Learn more about Just Vote and how you can take action here.