Climate activist Saad Amer met fashion and beauty blogger Thania Peck at a trendy bakery and coffeehouse in Midtown Manhattan in the hopes that she could help him find the answer to a question he'd been brooding over: how to get voting "in young people's faces."
Amer, who founded Plus1Vote before the 2018 midterms, had come to realize that real progress would never happen on climate change until an army of climate-motivated youth marched to the polls. And given young people's fairly dismal turnout in the 2016 presidential election, plus the struggle getting even his most "woke" peers to register to vote, that still felt like a moonshot to him.
As he and the sustainability-minded Peck, a force in her own right for moving multitudes online, brainstormed over artfully designed matcha green tea lattes, the idea came to them: "What if we put voting on people's faces?"
The outcome: an April photo shoot in which Plus1Vote had designer Christian Siriano photographed with climate activists and social media influencers with "VOTE" painted in bright blue, red and white capital letters across their faces.
When the photos went live online, so did an Instagram filter allowing users to recreate its effect, projecting "VOTE" onto their own faces. That day, Amer said, more than a thousand people used it.
This is not your grandfather's get-out-the-vote drive. Amer's digital playbook is far removed from the leafleting and door-knocking that have characterized traditional canvassing for years. But since Amer founded Plus1Vote before the 2018 midterms, he claims to have reached over 200 million people online.
While activism can seem daunting, Amer said, Plus1Vote breaks it down into small steps built upon a simple, single idea: ask young voters to bring one person with them to the polls.
In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, Amer said, Plus1Vote "achieved several million impressions on social media," with comedian Chelsea Handler and television host Jimmy Kimmel tweeting about the group's work. Thanks to the efforts of Plus1Vote and allied organizations, Amer said, the midterms saw a record turnout among young voters in the Democratic wave that flipped the U.S. House.
Still, the central paradox of being a climate activist focused on voter registration and participation, Amer said, is never lost on him: young people make up the demographic most likely to rank climate change as their top priority—but the least likely to vote.
"Young people," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale's Program on Climate Change Communication, "have so much more power in their hands than they exert."
Voting and Serious Policy Change
Amer started organizing at 14, seeking to make the nearby Fish Thicket Land Preserve more accessible to students in his hometown of Medford, New York. Yet the more Amer tried to tackle the climate crisis, first at Harvard and then working to support resource conservation in the Himalayas, the more futile his efforts felt in the absence of serious policy change.
If he could build voting power among young people, Amer imagined, he could alter the course of U.S. policymaking.
Today, at 26, Amer's work with his Plus1Vote team puts him in regular contact with various grassroots activists and elected officials such as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Adam Schiff of California. Amer hosted a segment of Earth Day Live with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earlier this year.
One of the activists who took part in the April photo shoot he and Thania Peck dreamed up was Betsy Balbuena, 17, action coordinator of Extinction Rebellion Youth NYC. Balbuena, who turns 18 before election day and can't wait to cast her first vote, met Amer last fall, when he stood out at youth climate coalition meetings as the only adult in attendance.
Young people want to see people they find relatable, who "look like them," voting, said Amer. That's why Plus1Vote works with social media influencers like Peck and organizations like the Women's March, including those not traditionally seen as part of the climate movement.
Amer found support for his strategy in the outcomes of the 2018 midterms. Since then he has been partnering with voting rights coalitions and state policymakers to advance legislation making voting more accessible, such as the Automatic Voter Registration Act just passed by the New York State Senate.
Racing Toward November
Looking ahead to the epic Joe Biden-Donald Trump showdown and the fight for control of the U.S. Senate, Amer hopes to work his 2018 magic in November. Starting this month, Plus1Vote is organizing what Amer called a "voter activist training crash course," held entirely online, to equip young people to get out the vote in their communities.
The course will train youth participants to use digital tools, such as texting and social media, so that they can communicate the importance of voting "peer-to-peer" and make voter registration seem "more relevant, more accessible, and more fun" to those often disengaged from the process.
The crash course will also feature a diverse variety of elected officials, experts, activists and social influencers, ranging from youth climate organizers to public figures like former Vice President Al Gore. Elected officials have direct access to the policy process and know what reaches their constituents, while celebrities and influencers can provide access to a vast online network of fans and followers who might not normally get messages about voting.
Lauren Ferree, a 28-year-old video producer and environmentalist from Los Angeles, provides a powerful case study of how Amer's digital organizing model can work.
Ferree used to believe sustainable living was the most powerful way individuals could take climate action. But after reading an op-ed in January which quantified how much more of a "dent" individuals could make by stopping a pipeline than by living a zero-carbon lifestyle, she had an awakening.
She realized the importance of seeing oneself as part of a "larger system" for making change—starting with voting.
After receiving an email from Peck in April asking her to take part in a campaign she'd been working on with Amer, Ferree was inspired.
Combining her background in video editing and passion for sustainability, Ferree released a video on the social media platform TikTok telling her 49,500 followers "the most sustainable thing you can do to make an impact—Vote, baby!" Today, the video, which was also shared on Instagram by the Rock the Vote organization, has received 22,000 likes on TikTok, where about half of users are ages 18 to 34.
Ferree's spontaneous video captures the outreach that Amer hopes will transform elections. Especially in the time of Covid-19, which pushed Internet use up by a whopping 70 percent as of March, social media offers a powerful channel for reaching youth, Ferree said.
But while a pandemic-induced movement online may allow Amer's get-out-the-vote message to reach a broader audience of young people, actually getting out their vote may prove far more difficult.
Given this reality, Amer doesn't "blame young people for feeling disillusioned" with voting when the "system isn't designed for them." He noted that young people are less likely to have photo identification, which may bar them from online voter registration. They have also historically cast a relatively higher rate of ballots in person, leaving many unfamiliar with absentee voting.
Yale's Leiserowitz said there were so many unknown variables around voting during a pandemic that it is hard to predict how any potential voters, let alone young people, will behave.
Characteristically, Amer remains hopeful about November. Citing historic levels of absentee ballot submissions and efforts to expand voting by mail, Amer said people and especially, young people, are expressing a "really large desire" to participate in the democratic process, "even if it means using the mail, which, honestly, young people don't use very much."