On November 13, Michael Giusto turned 18 years old. Becoming an adult is always a big moment in any teenager’s life. But Giusto’s landmark birthday comes with added responsibility. Thanks to a quirk in Georgia’s laws that requires at least 50% of the vote to win a US Senate seat, both the state’s Senate races are going to a runoff on January 5, 2021.
Giusto, a high school senior from Alpharetta, a suburb north of Atlanta, missed voting in the 2020 election by just 10 days. This time he has the opportunity to vote for his state’s senators—so long as he registers by December 7.
“It’s kind of surreal,” he told me the day before his birthday. “I’m coming to the realization that voting is a more powerful and valuable way to participate in the government than anything else I could do, and I will have this responsibility dropped on me in less than 12 hours.”
Giusto is one of about 23,000 17-year-olds who—according to the Civics Center, an organization devoted to youth civic engagement—were ineligible to vote in the presidential election but will be eligible to vote in the Georgia runoff.
That number is not enough to close the gap between either Democrat Jon Ossoff and the Republican incumbent, Senator David Perdue, or Democrat Raphael Warnock and his Republican opponent, Senator Kelly Loeffler. But the Gen Z vote, which tends to favor Democrats, could make a serious dent in the Republican lead.
That could have huge implications. The Senate is closely divided, with 50 Republicans to 48 Democrats right now. The remaining two seats will be decided by Georgia’s runoffs, which could lead to two very different scenarios. If the seats go to one Republican and one Democrat or both seats go to Republicans, Republicans will have power in the Senate, and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will retain his role as majority leader, creating an obstacle that could severely reduce President-elect Joe Biden’s chances of passing legislation. If, however, both seats go to Democrats, the Senate will be 50-50, and Kamala Harris, in the vice president’s traditional role as president of the Senate, would have the power to break a tie. This would give Democrats the advantage.
No wonder powerful political action committees are devoting hundreds of millions of dollars and plenty of attention to the Georgia Senate runoffs. But grassroots organizations are getting involved too. Often with the help of Twitch live streams, mobile games, and social media, they hope to influence teens about to turn 18 to register to vote.
Georgia’s demographics are rapidly changing, says Niles Francis, a 19-year-old freshman at Georgia State University who was the youngest analyst for Decision Desk HQ. “Cobb County has gotten more younger and diverse,” he says of his home county, which swung for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and went for Joe Biden in 2020. “It’s one of those counties that have become more educated, more affluent, and younger.”
That influx of youth is integral to Georgia’s rapidly changing political landscape. And it means there’s a growing untapped cohort of would-be voters out there.
Many of those volunteers were not able to vote in the last election. “There is a misconception that if you are not yet 18, you cannot have an active role and participate in volunteering for campaigns,” says Cate Mayer, the group’s founder. Friends Vote Together currently has more than 40 teenage volunteers phone-banking and text-banking for the upcoming Georgia election, she says.
The video-streaming site Twitch, however, has blossomed in recent months as a way to reach out to Gen Z voters, as the live stream of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez playing Among Us showed. The Amazon-owned platform has a lot going for it: its audience is young; the platform’s live streams include some of the hottest influencers today, often playing video games; and the chat function is lively and can be moderated. As Ocasio-Cortez’s record-breaking event showed, there’s an audience for live streams that are politically tinged, and voters are open to registering to vote if the chat is sprinkled with reminders from campaigns.
Whether those streams translate to actual registrations and votes, however, is not known. But increasingly, organizations see Twitch as the next frontier for political canvassing.
Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, one of the largest nonprofits working to register young voters, conducted two successful “Twitch the Vote” events with the help of a sneaker giveaway. The results included getting 9,000 new voters to sign up on National Voter Registration Day in September.
Ufot notes that Twitch streams are still a mystery to many political operatives. “We have to explain to them what Twitch is,” she says. “The idea that people will show up to watch e-sports players watch games and talk about politics—they don’t get it. But we got 500,000 unique visitors on our Twitch the Vote events!”
It’s become increasingly apparent that gaming can fold in politics and entertainment, and that it can become a platform for political power. Ufot says she’s had mobile gaming trucks at key polling locations to get the word out and has found that these trucks—where anyone can come in and play games while talking about political issues—are an excellent way to reach underserved voters, like many in the Black community.
Georgia has historically been a major target for Black voter suppression via practices like arbitrarily applying rules requiring signatures and specific marking on ballots, or creating hostile environments at polling stations, according to the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. Amid battles over such issues, however, the state has gone from predictably Republican to a tossup. One of the biggest groups addressing voter suppression is Fair Fight Action, founded on the night former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams lost her bid in 2018.
Ufot’s New Georgia Project works closely with Fair Fight Action and says the group has built its own technology to make sure Black voters, no matter their age, feel safe voting. For example, the group’s app includes an SOS button where a voter can record threats of violence. GPS coordinates are then sent to the New Georgia Project, which can trace which polling station is problematic.
The project is now focused on reaching Georgia’s valuable 18-year-olds: “We’re dropping in on Zoom high school government classes. We’re doing more Twitch the Vote events. We’re going to graduations at the end of the semester.” And is it working? “Yesterday, we came in at just under 1,000 new voters,” she says.
Edward Aguilar just turned 17, which means he was ineligible to vote on November 3 and can’t participate in the upcoming runoffs either. But for the presidential election he co-developed an open-source algorithm, now a Google Doc, to help college students figure out where their vote counted more: in the district where they went to school or the one they called home. Now he’s passionate about getting his friends and their friends to vote.
“We started realizing there is a unique situation where students have this voting power, and that power can help motivate them,” Aguilar says. “Their vote has a say.”
One of those friends is Giusto, who helped his mom place Warnock and Biden-Harris signs around polling stations in his hometown of Alpharetta. Now, as a newly eligible voter, he’s reaching out to the next cohort. “We’re going to hundreds of youth-run political clubs in high schools across Georgia to find people who will now be able to vote,” Giusto says. “From there, we start real, in-depth conversations about the upsides and downsides of voting for one candidate versus another.”