How the North Bay’s Gen Z feels about voting in the upcoming primaries

The Press Democrat reached out to young Sonoma County voters to gauge their feelings about the candidates and politics in general.|

For The Press Democrat’s Voter Guide, go here.

This November, the two oldest Americans to ever win their party’s nomination, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, will likely face off in the presidential election.

They would beat the age record they set in 2020.

That year, record numbers of young voters helped push Biden to victory. This year, however, polls show many young people are not engaged or are turned off by the lack of choices at the top of the ballot.

Time will tell how that will play out with down-ballot races, but with California’s Super Tuesday primary looming on March 5 and only eight months to go before the presidential election, The Press Democrat reached out to young Sonoma County voters to gauge their feelings about the candidates and politics in general.

Here’s what they told us:

The word “iffy” best sums up Helena Perez’s feelings about Tuesday’s primary.

The 21-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student’s unenthusiastic sentiments are shared by many Gen Z, mostly first-time voters in the North Bay when it comes to this election, and more broadly this political era.

“I will put my vote in and do my best to make the best decision,” she said, but when it comes to politicians, “I always get disappointed. I have no motivation to keep up with it.”

Indeed, young voters feel defeated and overwhelmed by a political system they don’t have faith in, according to polls and political experts. The young people, mostly ages 18-24, who interviewed with the Press Democrat bore that out.

Many young voters lacked knowledge about local political races and ballot initiatives, but promised they would do their homework over the weekend, if not on Election Day. Some were on the fence about whether they even wanted to vote at all.

Noelia Gonzalez, a 19-year-old in Santa Rosa, said she would vote “if I have the time to, and if I kind of look more into it,” but so far she hadn’t heard much about this election.

Overall voter turnout for this election is expected to be low. A Public Policy Institute of California poll found fewer than 4 in 10 Californians say they are “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about voting for president.

By Thursday, 51,181 people (17%) of registered Sonoma County voters had turned in their ballots early, according to Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Deva Proto. Of 26,650 registered voters in the 18-24 age range, only 3.17% had turned in their ballots.

David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University said this March 5 ballot has “a short quick runway” and statewide, there’s “not a lot of sexy races — not a lot of sizzle.”

While he expects overall voter turnout, and young voter turnout, will be low, McCuan hopes to see the emerging electorate develop voting as a habit and taking action on issues that matter to them, rather than simply opting out.

Cold feet on political process

Lyndsey Burcina, 23, is an Elsie Allen High School graduate who attended the JC and several other programs. She got involved in local political campaigns at the age of 16. Now, she still lives in Santa Rosa but is assisting in out-of-state congressional campaigns.

Around fourth grade when Barack Obama made his first run for president, she started really paying attention. A Scholastic Book Fair pretend-ballot sparked her passion and led her to run for class office.

“I really like a challenge,” Burcina said. “And now you see a lot of young people getting involved in politics on a local level or even on a greater scale. But back then, it felt unheard of.”

Lyndsey Burcina (Courtesy photo)
Lyndsey Burcina (Courtesy photo)

However, a shift in the past few years amid divided politics and the pandemic, has her and her peers feeling tapped out, Burcina said.

“The consensus among most young people, I think, is just that it's a broken — and sometimes feels like a rigged — system that's constantly working against the younger generations of people,” she said.

Katie Stebbins, a 19-year-old SRJC student from Santa Rosa who’s registered to vote for the first time as an independent, said she’s feeling a mixture of discouragement, unease and unawareness.

“Figuring it out as a first-timer while also nearly completely disagreeing with a lot of the candidates is something here to grapple with,” she said.

She also added that she feels the effect of living in a “California bubble.” She acknowledges being white, middle class and living in a liberal state where issues like reproductive rights or school censorship are not imminently under threat means she and many other Californians feel comfortable enough to be unconcerned.

Stebbins added that she doesn’t see politicians or ballot initiatives addressing local issues she does care about: the housing crisis and inflation, which impact young students like herself.

“I'm a little discouraged and unaware, pretty much, but I guess nervous too, because it's my first time so I'm not used to it or necessarily that educated about it.”

‘Picking the lesser evil’

The apprehensions are compounded by the fact that the two most-likely presidential candidates are Biden, 81, and Trump, 77. In the eyes of many young voters, both men are too old to represent them, and there’s some doubt around their competency.

Charlie Burke, an 18-year-old SRJC child development major who plans to vote next week for the first time, said she’s only excited because it’s her first time exercising her political voice.

“There’s two people who should not be running for president,” she said. “It makes it really hard to feel represented in a country that's so divided. And I think it's kind of like a picking-the-lesser-evil situation, but that doesn't make it any easier.”

Others had similar thoughts.

Alex Schultz (Lauren Pirrung)
Alex Schultz (Lauren Pirrung)

Alex Schultz, a 23-year-old product manager in Napa who is a registered Democrat, said the March primary is probably the first time he’s voted that he’s not particularly excited about.

“Even in 2020, it was a scary time and I felt like ‘OK, well, we have a bit of a chance to make a difference and improve things,’” he said. “Now it feels like we’re just going to be more accepting.”

The average age in the U.S. House of Representatives is in the 60s, ”which is crazy because it's not at all representative of the country and the people that they're supposed to represent,” he said. “Younger leadership that is more representative of the country as a whole, whether it's age or gender, race, other demographics, is long overdue.”

Schultz says he acknowledges the good things Biden has done under the constraints of Congress, but he and other young people interviewed also expressed discontent with his policies, particularly with regard to Palestinian civilians trapped in Gaza as Israel wages war against Hamas.

A New York Times/Siena College poll found younger Americans are far more critical than older voters of both Israel’s conduct and the Biden administration’s response to the war in Gaza.

Among peers in his age group, Schultz said they’re overall displeased with Biden, “that’s not to say they would vote for Trump, but they might abstain from voting in the presidential election or vote third party. ”

Issues focused

McCuan, the political science professor, says something that sets the younger generation apart from previous ones is their alignment with issues, such as climate change or reproductive rights, rather than candidate identities or personas.

"It's easy to turn emerging voters off, especially if they feel like you're not speaking to their issues related to student loans, affordability increasingly in households … pressures we see as especially acute for this rising American electorate,“ he said.

Omar Lopez, the 21-year-old political director of Wine Country Young Democrats, was inspired at a young age by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, when former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. Lopez went on to become the student member for the Santa Rosa City Schools board.

Even though he admits that his level of passion and involvement “doesn’t always pan out,” he says he remains undaunted.

Lopez sees California Gen Zers wanting real change and action when it comes to issues including climate change, social justice, the fight in Middle East and LGBTQ and abortion rights. He added that they’re more favorable to socialism and communism, as well as wary of big money in politics — they did grow up during the 2008 financial crisis after all.

“People are more willing to follow their hearts than just sort of follow what everybody's doing or follow what is the more quote unquote successful option,“ he said.

Angel Diaz, 20, who is studying biology at SRJC, made a “so-so” hand gesture when asked how he feels about the upcoming primaries. Diaz added that while he cares about issues including immigration, health care and student loan forgiveness, he doesn’t see any local or national politicians speaking to these issue. He cautioned, however, that he hasn’t done much research aside from what he’s seen on YouTube and social media.

Social media

The main political parties are not engaging enough with the youth around the issues they care about, in Lopez’s opinion. He added that social media engagement is, without doubt, one of the main ways that the younger generation connects with one another on these topics.

This is for better or for worse, said McCuan, who’s concerned about the spread of misinformation. He also is concerned that some young people are under the impression that sharing their message, for example retweeting a post or sharing an Instagram story about a political issue — equates to action, and that they might be more likely to post rather than vote.

The recent churning and negativity in politics will likely be problematic for young participation as well, he said.

What McCuan calls “junk food politics“ (social media posts, pop-up ads, fake news, mailers and all-around divisive rhetoric that feeds on negativity) has resulted in “negative mobilization“ of young voters because” you consume it, and you don't feel good afterward," McCuan said.

Burcina, the 23-year-old who works as a campaign adviser, said she used to love reading up on the news in the morning. “That's how I would start my day, and now it just drains me because there's always something bad happening. And it just seems to get worse. And I also think that we have not had great candidates the last three elections.”

“It's becoming increasingly difficult to turn those emotions into productivity because we all kind of just want to take a breath, but there's been no room to breathe,” she said. “But my ask of the community, and especially the youth and the young community, is to pay attention and be informed so that we don't keep repeating the same mistakes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8531 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On X (Twitter,) @alana_minkler.

For The Press Democrat’s Voter Guide, go here.

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