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Emily Lynch

Registered voters in Ohio will see Gen Z candidates on the ballot this November.

Change in leadership: Gen Z runs for public office

3:30 p.m. Sam Cao sits in front of the computer in his room, enters the zoom meeting dressed as any teenager would be–black hoodie and tousled hair. Just home from school, he is the picture of an 18-year student from Mason, not the suit and tie you would expect of a political candidate running for office. Cao made history during the August 2022 primary, when he became the youngest candidate in Ohio to ever run for office with his campaign for the Ohio House of Representatives.

Cao is only one example of a new generation entering the political stage. Namely, Generation Z, those born from the years 1997 to 2012. Candidates from all over the country are helping to lead the charge including fellow Ohio candidate Sam Lawrence.

I’m going to run because no one else is doing it.

— Sam Cao

One of the biggest factors pushing young people to the voting booth, and to candidacy, is a desire to focus on new issues that have been ignored by previous generations of politicians and voters. Issues that will have lasting impacts on their own and future generations.

“We have a lot of politicians in office that have been there longer than most of us have been alive. The damage that they’ve done with their policies and legislation, they don’t have to bear the consequences,” Cao said.“We’re going to be here for decades, much longer to bear these consequences.”

Other hot topics such as abortion access, gun control, and the economy have similarly motivated Gen Z to pursue office in order to help illicit some response to these issues. Getting involved in issues they are passionate about is exactly what civic engagement promoters hope happens.

“From my perspective, we should have more people that are willing to be candidates,” State Senator Steve Wilson of Ohio’s Senate District 7 said. “We should have a lot more people willing to study the issues.”

In America especially, civic participation is necessary for the proper function of the government. The more people that participate, the better their government can represent their interests.

“When we see candidates running for office as young people, not only is that great because it’s bringing that voice into politics directly. It’s also a reflection of this broader rise in interest that I think is a very healthy thing in democracy.” Dr. John Forren, a professor of political science for Miami University and executive director for the university’s Menard Family Center for Democracy, said.

Additionally, it isn’t just in Ohio that Gen Z is beginning to take the stage. All over the United States, a new age of candidates are running for offices. Candidates like Maxwell Frost, a Gen Z congressional candidate who has the possibility to become the first Gen Z congressman after he won the Florida Democratic primary.

However, while federal offices are certainly important, local offices are playing an increasingly significant role in politics. This comes as controversial issues are more commonly being put onto the agendas of state and local governments.

“What’s different now is state legislatures are now voting on [controversial issues],” Forren said. “What they decide will matter.”

This is why it is an impressive feat that most Gen Z candidates are running for state and local office. The opportunity to run for these types of offices might be presenting itself to younger, more inexperienced candidates. As explained by Forren, this might be in part due to gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing the boundaries of electoral districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage over its rivals. This discourages possible candidates from the unfavored party from running for offices in gerrymandered districts.

“More established candidates are choosing not to run in those areas because they don’t think they can win,” Forren said. “It opens up the opportunity for less experienced candidates.”

Gerrymandering has been a hot topic for Ohio in recent years. Most recently in July 2022, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down, for the second time following a strike down earlier in January that year, a redistricting map for the state. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the map was unconstitutional and unfairly favored the Republican party.

The lack of experienced competition gave some Gen Z candidates the confidence needed to try their hand at campaigning, both nationally and within Ohio. Candidates such as Cao and Sam Lawrence.

When Cao noticed that Representative Paul Zelwanger of Ohio’s 56th district (formerly 54th district) was seemingly running unopposed, he was concerned. Cao believed that Zeltwanger was not properly representing the constituents of his district, which included himself.

“That’s kind of concerning that no one’s running to replace [Representative Paul Zeltwanger].”  Cao said.

Young adults are often stereotyped as having a lack of civic engagement. Gen Z appears to be proving this wrong with actions like Cao’s. However, they are doing this not only through running for office, but also by voting, which has always been notoriously low for young voters, no matter the generation.

In recent years, an increase in civic engagement has been reflected in a significant increase in both voter registration and voter turnout by young adults. Voter turnout can be especially powerful due to the overall size of Gen Z compared to previous generations.

“[The younger generations] are larger in number than the older people,” Kings High School government teacher Elisa King said. “But your voter turnout is lower.”

In the 2020 U.S. Census, approximately 15,984,000 adults between the age of 18 and 24, of which Gen Z made up the majority, reported being registered to vote. This makes up 59.8% of the 26,737,000 recorded 18 to 24-year-old citizens.   This is up from only 45.3% of citizens ages 18 to 24 who reported being registered voters on the 2010 Census.

The difference is even more apparent when looking at voter turnout. In 2010, only 21.3% of 18 to 24-year-olds reported voting. This number jumped to a staggering 51.4% in 2020.

This reflects both an initiative by young voters to get out and participate in politics, as well as an increased push by older generations to welcome and encourage civic engagement. Even current officeholders have been welcoming the new generation with open arms.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” Wilson said. “Being registered to vote, voting, and learning about what the candidates are all about, I feel that is extremely important to our democracy. We need to encourage that, in every way that we can.”

Even the candidates themselves have noted how encouraging older politicians and candidates have been during the elections, often endorsing Gen Z candidates and their campaigns.

“I haven’t met too many office holders that have been negative in general about Gen Z running for office,” Cao said. “I’ve met a lot of politicians, on the other hand, Republican and Democrat, that have been super, super welcoming about Gen Z entering the political sphere.”

Even educators, who are currently teaching Gen Z students, are excited to see them becoming active citizens.

“I think it’s great,” King said. “I think it’s amazing.”

With the question of how their future is affected by politics, Gen Z has taken it into their own hands, taking on the challenge of safeguarding their future through civic engagement.

Or, as Sam Cao put it, “Who better to protect the kids than the kids?”

This story was originally published on The Knight Times on November 1, 2022.

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