How Supreme Court Decisions Are Activating a Generation of Young Voters

Photo for The Washington Post by Tom Brenner
Demonstrators hold up signs of protest outside the Supreme Court on June 30. The court ruled against the Biden administration’s plan for student loan forgiveness.
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Aaron Satyanarayana (L)
Maxine Ewing (R)

Aaron Satyanarayana was disheartened by the recent Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action. His girlfriend, Maxine Ewing, is worried about the fallout from the court’s decision to block President Biden’s plan to forgive student loan debt.

And Cam Kuhn was livid that a majority of the justices sided with a website designer who refused services to LGBTQ+ people on religious grounds.

The young voters plans to make their objections known at the ballot box next year, viewing the court’s actions as out of step with the issues and values important to them and their peers.

For many voters under 35 years of age, especially those on the left, the Supreme Court has become a political issue in the same way that climate change, gun violence and immigration have over the course of the past two decades, some political scientists and organizers have said.

Conversations with more than a dozen young voters from around the country who recently visited Washington for the Fourth of July suggest a sense of frustration, even resignation for some, but also a renewed understanding that their votes could impact which justices sit on the federal bench.

Democrats and liberals have viewed the high court as an institution that historically protects the rights of marginalized groups. But Republican politicians and activists on the right have remade the court: President Donald Trump, backed by a GOP Senate, appointed three justices to create a conservative majority.

Over the past five years, trust in the Supreme Court to “do the right thing” all or most of the time has decreased by 10 percentage points among 18- to 29-year-olds, according to a poll released by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School.

The court’s recent rulings, along with last year’s decision striking down the right to abortion established in 1973’s Roe v. Wade, could prompt more young people to be active in next year’s presidential and congressional elections, some observers predict.

“They are [angry] because government continues to give them the short end of the stick, they’re going to turn out and vote. And in this case, it could not be more clear that there’s two sides and the contrast could not be more stark,” said Antonio Arellano, a spokesman for NextGen America, a liberal advocacy group and political action committee.

Some, like the 24-year-old Satyanarayana, say this moment calls for more than just casting a ballot.

“It’s not the time to kind of isolate or dissociate from reality or the work that has to be done in political and social movements,” said Satyanarayana, who recently moved to D.C. from New York. “And as somebody who has been so averse towards door-knocking and canvassing my entire life, these three decisions and Dobbs are shifting my mind-set.” Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was the case in which the court ruled that there was no constitutional right to abortion.

Ewing, 24, who is from New York, generally shies from political debates but had much to say about the court’s decision to block Biden’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student-loan debt for borrowers.

“They are setting up a generation and future generations for failure, and it’s gonna impact everyone,” Ewing said as she and Satyanarayana stood on a shaded stretch of grass on the National Mall. “What’s gonna happen when none of us can buy houses? What’s gonna happen when none of us can buy anything?”

Young voters, who overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates in last year’s midterms, were credited with helping to stop an anticipated Republican wave in Congress. Democrats held onto the Senate, and while the GOP won the House, it did so with a slim majority. A Washington Post analysis of census turnout data indicates that 26 percent of voters under 30 turned out in 2022, which was down from 2018, but still notably higher than any midterm election between 2002 and 2014.

And in the spring, college-aged voters in Wisconsin headed to the polls in droves to elect Janet Protasiewicz, flipping the state Supreme Court’s majority from conservative to liberal, in a bid to protect abortion rights there.

The state’s young voter turnout led the nation in November’s midterm elections, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Still, turnout among young voters continues to lag behind older voters. Rick Hasen, UCLA professor of law and political science and director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project, said organizers should seek to expand the number of young people on the voter rolls.

“The kind of political action that should be targeted at young people, the very first thing to think about even more than getting people to show up at the polls is getting them to register in the first place,” Hasen said.

The court also ruled that a Colorado graphic artist could refuse to create wedding websites for same-sex couples, citing her religious objections.

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Cam Kuhn

Kuhn, 34, identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. He said he vividly remembers the day in 2015 that the court guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry in Obergefell v. Hodges, citing it as the moment he started to pay attention to the Supreme Court.

“I felt so supported by my country,” he said.

Now, almost a decade later, Kuhn struggles with the Supreme Court’s “swing in the other direction.”

“I want to believe that the Supreme Court is not political, but it’s very hard,” Kuhn said. “I think what everybody is feeling right now is we’re tired of the government telling us how we should live our lives. Let us have our freedoms, let us love who we want to love, let us go to college where we want to go to college, let people have their reproductive rights.”

Kuhn, who lives in Little Rock, said he hopes to join organizing efforts for LGBTQ+ issues and student loan forgiveness ahead of next year’s election. Although Kuhn would like to see newer figures in the Democratic Party run for president, such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or California Gov. Gavin Newsom, he plans to support Biden in 2024.

“He is the right person, especially with us potentially facing Trump coming back,” Kuhn added.

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Christian Blanks

Christian Blanks has always described himself as conservative. But as he and his mother, Bari, paused in front of the Supreme Court, they expressed their doubts about the Republican Party’s ability to capture their vote.

Blanks’ sister is transgender and has spent most of her life under attack in their home state of Louisiana. Amid sweeping changes to laws governing diversity and inclusion programs in schools and access to abortion, Louisiana legislators made repeated efforts this year to ban gender-affirming medical care for young transgender people and sought to enact a bill barring discussions about gender and sexuality in schools.

“I used to be kind of a conservative first, but then after all of these, you know, kind of Bible-pumping, senators and candidates have come about, I just, you know, I’ve definitely become more on the left,” Christian said.

Bari thinks the Supreme Court, which for decades was seen as protecting the rights of marginalized groups, is now “influenced by career politicians.”

“Aside from the fact that the country is more polarized than it’s ever been, I think the right-leaning GOP and the infringement on the right to privacy and personal rights is deplorable,” she said.

But Christian added that Democrats would need to put forward better options to earn his vote in 2024. “If it’s just really primarily going to be Joe Biden versus one of the radical right-leaning candidates running, I’m not even gonna bother, because where I vote in Louisiana, it’s always conservative folks that win.”

According to an April survey by the Marist Poll, 50 percent of 18 to 29-year-old voters disapprove of the job that Biden is doing. The poll also found that 61 percent of young people don’t want Trump to return to the Oval Office.

Voters under 30, who backed Biden by a wide margin according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research and AP VoteCast, were hopeful that he would make good on his promise to protect abortion access, cancel student loan debt and defend LGBTQ+ rights. But after the recent Supreme Court decisions, many now consider voting for Biden to be a matter of survival.

“I felt like after Roe v. Wade, it just went downhill from there. And I feel like that was the starting point of like, really seeing how bad things could get,” said 21-year-old Faye Ipaye, a student at Bowie State University. “I feel like young people don’t have a lot of trust in them. … We’re gonna like have to just pick the lesser of the two evils.”

Organizations like NextGen America are trying to make sure that disillusionment doesn’t turn into disengagement. It aims to increase national voter turnout on college campuses and among voters 18 to 29 years old, using social media to deliver messages about voting resources, as well as Supreme Court rulings and their impact.

Although young voters have consistently leaned left, organizers warn that Democrats shouldn’t take that support for granted.

Clarissa Unger, chief executive of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, a nonpartisan voter education network working to increase turnout among college students, said Generation Z voters don’t bind themselves to parties but respond to candidates who demonstrate an understanding of their lived experiences.

“Both parties have an opportunity to make a direct appeal to young people and to bring them into the fold, and I think it’s to either party’s detriment to not do so,” Unger added.

A study by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement estimated that 8.3 million youth became eligible voters in 2022, with 46 percent representing communities of color. If mobilized, this diverse group brings with it a set of policy priorities shaped by identity and informed by national struggles like the covid-19 pandemic and the social justice movement that grew from the police killing of George Floyd, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the center’s Newhouse director.

According to data from the Education Data Initiative, over 15 million millennials have student loan debt – more than any other generation – carrying on average a balance of $33,173 per borrower. Many are waiting, with fingers crossed, for Biden’s loan forgiveness agenda to succeed.

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Estefani Marchena (L)

For borrowers like Estefani Marchena, a 21-year-old senior at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said when she took out the loans, she didn’t think ahead to how much it might cost to pay them back. “I have loans, but I’m just like, I’ll figure it out later when I graduate,” she said. Marchena said she never knew much about Biden’s loan forgiveness plan, and did not imagine a possibility in which it would happen. But now she thinks it could have been helped.

Marchena hopes to attend graduate school next year, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She wants to make health-care resources more accessible for minorities and people with disabilities. “I think there’s still a lot of change that needs to be made,” she said.

In 2024, she is certain she will cast a ballot for Biden, along with her boyfriend, Chase Campos-Tapia. Marchena said she voted for Biden in 2020 because it was “the lesser of two evils.” In an ideal world, she said, her choice would have been Bernie Sanders. “You have to be smart. I think, slowly, you have to make change to get more Democratic people in office,” she said.