After a spike in youth turnout and the election of a record-breaking number of women in the 2018 midterm elections, Hannah Zimmerman ’21 — the youngest appointee to the Democratic National Convention and New York’s youngest elected official — reflected upon the elections, increasing diversity in politics and her own efforts to increase youth political engagement in an interview with The Daily.
Zimmerman was elected to the New York County Democratic Committee at the age of 17, after petitioning to run under the age minimum, which was 18 at the time. Following her campaign, an elections provision passed allowing 17-year-olds to run for office in New York, provided they are pre-registered to vote.
This quarter, Zimmerman has worked closely with Naomi Alem ’19 and political science professor Bruce Cain to develop POLISCI 75: Making Your Voice Heard in the Midterm Election. Zimmerman expressed hope that the class would be “scaled up” for the next presidential election in 2020.
“I certainly hope we can do something similar in 2020 as I think the students gained a lot from the experience, but final word rests with them in the course end evaluations,” Cain wrote in an email to The Daily.
Zimmerman hinted at other “exciting plans” related to the 2020 elections, though she said she “can’t say very much at the moment.” Cain wrote that he believes she is “destined for a distinguished career in politics.”
Zimmerman said she has not always been as active in politics as she is now. As a vocal performance student in high school, she discovered her passion when she saw a booth for Bernie Sanders in Ann Arbor, Michigan during summer 2016. She said she then realized that she believed in a lot of the same things as him.
“I always say the reason I got involved in politics was because of [Sanders],” Zimmerman said. “But I stayed because I met the campaign trail — people who put their entire life on hold for a vision of this country.”
One of the challenges Zimmerman described is reminding herself why she loves what she does. On the New York County Democratic Committee, Zimmerman contributes to a policy platform for the New York City government to endorse, votes to replace elected officials who can no longer serve and works with local high schools in Manhattan to get young people more involved in politics.
“I love politics because it’s about making change, not because it’s about [me],” she said. “I’m here to get candidates elected who not only elevate their districts but the people within them.”
Women in Politics
Zimmerman expressed excitement that a large and diverse group of women were elected in the midterms. Along with the number of women elected breaking a congressional record, many individual women made history as well: Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez as the youngest woman elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar as the first Muslim women in Congress, Sharice David and Deb Haaland as the first Native American women in Congress and Kyrsten Sinema as the first bisexual person in the Senate.
Zimmerman said she is “tired of people picking some white man politician and saying that’s our guy. Let’s focus on women and diverse ideas and identities,” adding that “it was hard to be as young and political as I was and also be a woman back in 2016.”
“When I was there, I would be one of few women in the room,” she continued. “A lot of people didn’t take me seriously … I feel so much more comfortable knowing there are leaders like Alexandra [Ocasio-Cortez] and Ayanna [Pressley]. This is cool that our Congress looks like that.”
Encouraging youth engagement
Regarding youth participation in politics, Zimmerman said that there is “no shortage of political thought, but there’s a real shortage of political know-how,” adding that there is “a difference between thinking politically and making things happen.”
She wants to help young people develop a political toolkit, and learn core campaign strategies such as phone banking and canvassing. Zimmerman has worked to distribute this information through various means over the past few years, such as by co-writing a youth-organizing guide for Teen Vogue.
Zimmerman said she is a big believer in “using the academic institution and tools to give back to the community” in which she was raised. She believes the “most successful groups are those that have built infrastructure that allows them to exist for a long time.”
For young people who want to get more involved with politics, Zimmerman suggested they be thoughtful and deliberate with their political action.
“Don’t launch in head-first,” she said. “Take the time to think about what you’re doing, reach out to people, send messages to Facebook groups you like, email nonprofits you like, look for sustained movements. That’s what we need.”
Zimmerman expressed uncertainty about her future, but said she hopes to stay involved in politics throughout her career.
“Everyone has a different opinion about where my political career should go,” Zimmerman said. “I have had incredible mentors, and this at the same time poses challenges. I’m still 19, and I’m figuring out what I want to do and who I want to be.”
In light of recent controversy over alleged voter suppression and ballot fraud in the Florida and Georgia midterm elections, Zimmerman said she might want to become an election scholar or election lawyer one day. She hopes to “[eliminate] voter suppression” and “[create] ways for young people and minorities to get involved.”
“It won’t be easy, and it won’t be fun, but I can really see spending the rest of my life trying to make democracy more accessible,” she added, continuing that she finds it “disturbing” that many people do not feel as though their congressperson is part of their community.
“That’s bonkers to me because the reason [for democracy] is so we could elect people from our communities,” she said. “Clinton and Trump were the least-liked candidates.”
Regardless of where her political ambitions take her, Zimmerman stressed the importance of reminding herself that, despite the pressure of her work, she is still a teenager.
“I’m a 19-year-old girl who still has a crush on Robert Pattinson from Twilight,” she said. “I need to remember … I don’t need to hold myself to the standards of a 30-year-old.”
Contact Sarah Crable at scrable ‘at’ stanford.edu.