Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

State of Democra-Z: Campus protests point to war as top of mind for young voters

State of Democra-Z with encampment protests
The Israel-Hamas war is coming to the forefront of 2024 election. We asked Gen Z voters how the campus protests in Minnesota and nationwide are impacting their thoughts on the election.
MPR News

Over the past couple weeks, protests at universities here in Minnesota and around the country have dominated headlines. Students who are involved want their institutions to cut financial ties to Israel or meet other demands related to bringing an end to the Israel-Hamas war and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Both candidates for President have spoken out about the protests. President Joe Biden said in remarks that he values free speech but said “dissent must never lead to disorder.” Former President Donald Trump praised the police response in New York.

For more on the political importance of the protests and other top issues, MPR News host Cathy Wurzer turned to two young voters who follow politics closely. Maddie Christensen is a former leader of the College Democrats chapter at Hamline University in St. Paul. And Ruth Hailey is president of the College Republicans at St. Olaf in Northfield.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: Our series "The State of Democra-Z" continues, where we hear from young voters who are deeply engaged in politics. Over the past couple of weeks, protests at universities here in Minnesota and around the country have dominated the headlines. Students are involved, want their institutions to cut financial ties to Israel, or meet other demands related to bringing an end to the Israel-Hamas war and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Morgan Bliss is a liberal 24-year-old voter in Saint Paul, who says the protests are a good thing.

MORGAN BLISS: Like, the point of a student is to learn things, and a lot of the time with politics and, like, world affairs, the more you learn things, the angrier you get about the state of the world, which I think is a pretty reasonable response. When universities have been leaving the policing out of it and allowing students to exercise their rights and use what they've learned as students, I think it's been great.

CATHY WURZER: MPR politics fellow Ellie Roth recently talked to Marko Mirkovic, a conservative voter and a student at the University of Minnesota.

MARKO MIRKOVIC: I think that everybody should have the freedom to protest if they want to. It's the freedom of speech. That's why the First Amendment is there. But I think that once it starts impacting individuals around you in a negative way, I think that there needs to be some consideration for that as well. However, also, I don't really understand what protesting at a university in a state that's in the middle of the United States and so far away from conflict is really going to do.

CATHY WURZER: Both candidates for president have spoken out about the protests. President Biden said in remarks recently that he values free speech, but said, dissent must never lead to disorder. Former President Trump praised a New York police raid of a Columbia University building. For more on the political importance of the protests and other top issues, I'm going to turn right now to two young voters who follow politics closely.

Maddie Christensen is a former leader of the college Democrats chapter at Hamline University in Saint Paul. Ruth Hailey is president of the College Republicans at St. Olaf in Northfield. Both are graduating seniors. Maddie and Ruth, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MADDIE CHRISTENSEN: Thank you for having us. We really appreciate it. And we look forward to having [INAUDIBLE].

CATHY WURZER: Good to hear your voices. Thank you. Ruth, I'm going to start with you. The war clearly is top of mind for young voters. I'm wondering how you think these protests and how the candidates are responding could affect the election.

RUTH HAILEY: Well, I definitely think that it's very important for young people to feel like their voices are heard. And using our freedom of speech is definitely a way to do that. But I also-- I think that the protests in particular that have gotten violent and that have led to the destruction of property are really just a characteristic of privileged Americans. And I think that we should really be focusing on issues closer to home.

CATHY WURZER: I'm going to ask you about those issues here in a couple of minutes. Maddie, I know there have been protests at Hamline. How do you feel that this war may impact how students might vote about in the upcoming election here?

MADDIE CHRISTENSEN: Yes, absolutely. So first and foremost, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. And of course, this has been an issue that has been near and dear to my heart. I actually did participate in two protests at Hamline, but I have kind of, unfortunately, taken a step back, just because of scheduling, and, you know, of course, busy with graduation coming up.

But with that being said, a lot of students on campus, especially during the midterm elections, turned out to the polls, and we voted uncommitted. We were a part of those uncommitted numbers, because we wanted to send a message to President Biden that we are not happy with how he is taking all of this into account. And even though he states that the First Amendment is a top priority, and he wants to respect it, the fact that people like him are stating that the youth are our future, and we need to listen to them.

But here we are being ignored while we are peacefully demonstrating, calling to disclose and divest, just truly shows how important this issue is. And I promise you that once November comes around, we will show everyone what we want to show them, and the fact that we are not happy with what is going on. And our votes will show exactly that.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering, though, as you heard Ruth say, there are other maybe bigger issues to contend with. Would you agree with her, Maddie?

MADDIE CHRISTENSEN: I would definitely say there are bigger issues, such as abortion, gun rights, and gun restrictions, among other things. But I also think that just because there are bigger issues, this should not discount what is happening across overseas.

CATHY WURZER: Ruth, let's talk about some of these issues. Specifically, Maddie mentioned abortion. Former President Trump said last month it should be up to the states to decide and he would not support a federal ban. How do you feel about that?

RUTH HAILEY: I think that the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which happened recently, was a very good thing. And I think that it is, definitely, better now that it is in the hands of the states. I am pro-life. I believe that every human life-- human being has the right to be protected equally from violence. And I think that leaving it to the states is a good step in that direction towards the people actually having a voice on this issue and being able to make their convictions known.

CATHY WURZER: Is that-- is abortion one of your principle issues when you go vote? Just curious.

RUTH HAILEY: Yes, it is. Yes, I'm-- I am very much in favor of voting on your most important issues, and abortion is one of my principle convictions.

CATHY WURZER: Maddie, how important is abortion to you as a voting issue?

MADDIE CHRISTENSEN: It is extremely important. I would definitely say it is in within the top three of the issues that I hold near and dear to my heart. Of course, I remember the day that Roe v. Wade-- excuse me-- was overturned. I literally woke up, and I looked on my phone. And that's when the notification came.

And I was supposed to go up North. I was supposed to live the life that I was hoping. But after that, I was just crying the rest of the day because I knew how principle of a right that is to my body. I know as a legal studies major the importance of stare decisis and how precedent should not be overturned, because it is really set into place, and the fact that it seemed that the court just took that away from us was so disheartening.

And it just broke my heart for the millions of women, no matter what state they are in, our rights-- excuse me-- people, everyone should have the right to do what they want with their bodies, and the fact that that sacred right is now a thing of the past just destroyed me, and continues to be the reason why I want to stand up, fight back, and truly show everyone why this issue I hold so near and dear to my heart.

CATHY WURZER: I just got done talking to Clay Masters. He's one of our senior politics reporters. And there was a pretty contentious hearing in the Minnesota House Rules Committee this morning around a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would guarantee equal rights under the law to folks-- could not discriminate against people on account of race, and color, national origin, ancestry, or sex, including pregnancy, gender, and sexual orientation. And I'm curious, Ruth, what do you think about that? It was quite a contentious hearing this morning.

RUTH HAILEY: Well, I definitely think that people should not be discriminated against. And I think that pregnancy should definitely be one of those things that is not-- that is not used as a weapon against women. And I also-- I do think that there is more nuance to the issue when it comes to sexual divisions between male and female, and then the issue of gender. I think that there's definitely more that needs to be said and worked on on that issue so that we are not causing difficulties and undue burdens upon women.

CATHY WURZER: Maddie, what do you think of that proposed state constitutional amendment?

MADDIE CHRISTENSEN: I think that our state's version, I think it's fair to say and call it the Equal Rights Amendment, is an amazing addition to our sacred rights as Minnesotans. And of course, learning about the Equal Rights Amendment and how we did have some federal line of that, and that, again, it was taken away because the states did not allow for this to be enshrined again and again.

I think that it is extremely important that Minnesota takes the lead on this and truly shows the fact that it does not matter who you are, where you came from. You still deserve to have every right that is given to you as a human being, and that no one should be discriminated against, just as Ruth said.

CATHY WURZER: Say, I want to finish out our conversation. I have a little bit of audio from a 24-year-old who lives in Minneapolis. This is Kayla Zopfi. And Kayla says too often she feels young voters are treated as kind of a monolith. And she's kind of worried about how her generation will be portrayed when it's time to analyze the election results.

KAYLA ZOPFI: As a young person, it just kind of feels like no decision that I make will be the right decision. And it's just a lot of pressure. It feels like-- I think about what will I want to say to my grandkids when I'm, like, 80 or whatever. And they're like, oh my gosh, like, did you vote in this election? And I, of course, will say yes. And then I want to be able to give them the right answer.

CATHY WURZER: Ruth, does any of what she said resonate with you?

RUTH HAILEY: Well, I definitely think that it's important to vote, and that you want to be able to share that through the generations with your posterity. And I definitely think that, to your earlier point, this is going to be a very contentious election.

And I don't think that young voters are being seen as quite as much of a monolith as maybe might be portrayed in the media. I think definitely young women are portrayed as definitely more on the left, and then there's a divide between the young men, who are kind of seen as more conservative leaning. But I don't think that's always true. And myself as a conservative woman, I definitely break that mold.

CATHY WURZER: Maddie, what do you think?

MADDIE CHRISTENSEN: Yeah. I think that there is definitely a lot of pressure, because I think it has been proven, especially in the last few elections, that Gen Z has really turned out at these elections. And we make up a significant percentage of those who cast our votes. So I think that there is definitely a lot of pressure.

And as I said earlier, we hear the quote time and time again that the youth are our future. And I think that each time we go to the polls, people are looking at us, seeing what we want to decide. Because as the generations-- kind of there's a shift in power. We will be within that power threshold very, very soon. And I think it is important to really sit down, look at the issues holistically, and make those decisions, because I think in the end, it is important that we make a decision, no matter what it is, to just ensure that our voices are heard.

CATHY WURZER: Well, Ruth and Maddie, I appreciate your voices here this afternoon. Thank you so much for taking the time.

MADDIE CHRISTENSEN: Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

CATHY WURZER: Absolutely. And congratulations on your graduation. Ruth Hailey is a graduating senior at St. Olaf in Northfield, president of the College Republicans there. Maddie Christiansen is a senior at Hamline in Saint Paul, where she was leader of the College Democrats. Hamline's commencement is this coming Saturday. St. Olaf's is May 25.

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