Isabella McMillian, an 18-year-old philosophy major in Boone, North Carolina, is proud of her identity as an Appalachian. She loves the beauty, culture and history of the region, and is happy that she gets to be a part of it.  

However, as a queer woman, she says watching people she loves being “attacked by our legislators” through legislation such as HB 808, which prohibits gender-affirming care for minors in North Carolina, makes it challenging to love the state. 

McMillian plans to vote in the presidential election this upcoming fall, but said she’s not sure there are enough votes to bring about the changes she’d like to see, at home in North Carolina or on a national level. 

“I want to vote for whichever candidate can beat Donald Trump,” she said. 

In her view, Pres. Joe Biden is the stronger candidate for crucial issues she cares about, including the need to oppose attempts to erode reproductive rights and counter any additional anti-trans legislation that comes up in the future. 

“Is he who I would put in office if I could single-handedly choose? No, probably not,” McMillian said. But she isn’t sure anyone besides Biden could get enough votes. “I just don’t want us to keep going backward.”

Her comments highlight a bigger issue in the 2024 presidential election — the ongoing clash between Trump and Biden that, for many young Americans, is completely unavoidable. 

Despite Biden winning the vote of 18 to 29-year-olds in 2020, Trump is the candidate who has been gaining their support. Multiple polls from December show Trump with a lead over Biden among voters under 35. 

According to reporting from Vox on youth vote polling, pollsters described three theories about why this may be. They say young voters were initially hesitant to back Biden in the primaries, the reporting explained, and despite a record turnout in 2020, they voted more against Trump than they voted for Biden. Vox’s story also noted that theories around the Biden numbers suggest “caution at drawing sweeping conclusions about young people.” 

Biden has been criticized by young people for his stance on the war on Gaza, as seen by protests on university campuses across the country, to his handling of climate change and student debt  – and, of course, there are concerns about his age. Some are deciding to drop Biden completely from their ballots or choose not to vote. 

Bradley Nash Jr., a professor specializing in political, Appalachian and environmental sociology at Appalachian State University, suggests a second Trump vs. Biden faceoff could pose challenges for young voters. Although Nash hasn’t specifically researched this topic, he believes young people, driven by environmental concerns, might feel disillusioned in a Biden vs. Trump election, leading them to believe neither candidate will address their issues and discouraging them from voting.

“For obvious reasons, there are certain people that are not qualified to be in power, or it’s going to be more troublesome than it is beneficial,” he said. 

Nash said that he understands why so many young people feel disengaged, and that even he and his friends are fed up with these two candidates. Many people don’t want a redo of 2020, he explained. 

“We want new voices, new policies [and] new insights,” he said. But after national primary results, that’s not going to happen.

Even though the candidates themselves play a significant role in voter disengagement, they aren’t the sole factor contributing to disengagement among young Appalachians. While activism remains alive and well, many feel that the amount of in-person activism and political engagement is waning. This shift from traditional face-to-face interactions to a more digital-centric approach may be diminishing the energy and personal connections that once fueled on-the-ground political involvement. But in-person engagement persists on many college campuses, including recent pro-Palestine encampments and protests, in which hundreds of young people have been arrested for participating. In terms of voting, CIRCLE cites lack of contact and lack of information as barriers to voting for young people.

“Usually you’ll see some activism on campus, but at this point, I haven’t seen much going on at all,” Nash said. “I mean, you have the traditional Democratic and Republican parties doing their stuff here in town, but even they aren’t as visible as they were in the past.”

In his view, there could be more disengagement in the voting process because of the frustration and tiredness young voters are experiencing. 

“I think at this point in time there is that normal disengagement — that systems are not responsive, that politicians don’t listen and so on,” he said. “But I think there’s also just kind of a disengagement now because of just frustration and tiredness of fighting the same political battles over and over again”

“Voting feels like picking the best of a lot of bad options,” said Lorna Baxley, a 19-year-old student who currently isn’t registered to vote. Baxley never got around to registering and added, “I don’t feel passionate about my options.” 

While Baxley does plan to register to vote this time around, she said outreach from candidates, parties, or initiatives designed to encourage people to register is “not as much as there used to be.” 

“I remember a few years ago we were all excited about voting because everyone pushed you to do it,” she said. Now, she wonders if that’s changed because people feel “hopeless” about options. “I mean, it feels like the country is moving backward in terms of how progressive we are.”

 Young Appalachians might face external obstacles to engagement as well as internal barriers to voting. Nash believes many of them doubt their understanding of politics and feel uncertain about their ability to make informed decisions at the ballot box, which discourages them even further.

“In my classes on campus, there are a number of young people who always tell me they don’t have the knowledge to make political decisions,” he said. “I tell them ‘Yes, you do just as much as anybody else;’ but a lot of young people feel that they are not educated enough about the issues to participate.”

For some Appalachian youths, the notion of being too uneducated to make political decisions is a recurring theme — one that has been perpetuated for years. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, voters in the Appalachian region were used as a symbol of political ignorance and self-harm in national media narratives, either because of their voting choices or their lack of turnout, which seems to have continued well into 2024. The 8 percent drop among young people who “definitely plan to vote,” as found by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, aligns with the sentiments of youths throughout the region who continue to feel disengaged and uninterested. 

For some young people, voting is seen as a process that brings about positive change, but the lack of such change leaves others feeling disconnected and hopeless.

“Right now, as we try to build a culture that can encourage these [inclusive] ideas, our votes need to go to those who can get into office and make it harder for regressive policies to be passed,” Isabella McMillian explained. “I think one day my state and country will be ready to work towards better things, but we need damage control right now.”

Lauren Barton is a freelance journalist based in Dandridge, Tennessee. Their reporting and perspectives have made their way into NBC News, Scalawag Magazine, The Nation, Poynter and more. Follow them on X @laurenbarton03.

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.