If early polling data is anything to judge, youth voter turnout for this year’s November midterm elections will be dismal.
It’s tempting to think this can be explained by Americans of all age groups — not just young people — failing to turn out during midterm elections. Only 41% of Americans came out to vote in the 2010 midterms, compared to national voter turnout that reached 58% in the 2012 presidential election. And yet the numbers show something striking about young people specifically: In recent years, our generation has turned out in smaller percentages for midterms than any other age group.
In 2010, just 24% of 18-29 year-olds came out to vote. This year looks no different. Recent polls show that 79% of voters over the age of 65 are "absolutely certain" that they'll vote in the 2014 midterm elections, but only 23% of voters between the ages of 18 to 29 said they’re definitely going to cast a ballot this year.
Source: Harvard IOP
What’s going on? Why are the millennials — Americans aged between 18 and 35 — less excited to vote than ever before?
In short, it’s because we’re fed up.
If you go out on the street and ask 100 young people why they’re not planning to vote this year, you'll probably hear a variation on these three answers: "They're ineffective," "the system is rigged," or "we're ignored." Here's why.
With the country facing once-in-a-generation challenges during our lifetime, we’ve grown up watching Washington fail to live up to the most basic standards of governance. Why bother voting for a body that gets very little done and has deteriorated into a national laughingstock? The 113th Congress has been so incredibly ineffective that it will very likely pass the least number of bills in history. And guess who they'll be overtaking? The group elected from 2010 to 2012.
It’s not a matter of one party’s ineptitude over the other; the majority of young people are fed up with both parties and say they’ve had enough. In a Harvard poll, only 23% of young people say they have any trust in public institutions at large, a five-year low. For Congress, that number is even lower. Only 14% of young people believe Congress does the right thing most of the time:
Source: Harvard IOP
"The system is rigged."
It’s not just a matter of failing to pass real legislation. Young people also feel the system is rigged for rich donors and powerful lobbyists. Congress has become a millionaire’s club increasingly filled with career politicians, and young people no longer believe their representatives share their priorities. And rightfully so. On the key issues that matter to our generation — the economy, college affordability, climate change — Congress has mostly dragged its feet, beholden to the corporations who pay armies of lobbyists to descend upon Capitol Hill every time a bill is written. Young people wonder why they should spend time voting if it won’t change who really holds the power in Washington?
Congress ignores the issues our generation really cares about. But to make matters worse, when politicians do try talking about the issues that matter to us, if often feels like empty rhetoric and pandering.
Social media is a perfect example. Nearly every elected official in America now has a Facebook account and a Twitter handle. But too often, politicians think that having a social media account alone is enough to reach young people. They turn over their accounts to their staff, who end up writing safe, cookie-cutter posts filled with vague statements just to check the box. Rarely do we see them use digital media to creatively engage our generation in genuine conversations about real issues.
There are many politicians at the national and local level who work incredibly hard on behalf of young people and their entire constituency. But the people who have succeeded in reaching our demographic are those who engage young people authentically and are unafraid to take risks on social media. In this context, taking a risk means nothing more than talking to us like a normal human being and giving us specifics about where you stand and what your plan is.
Young people make up 26% of the electorate, and that figure will increase to 37% in 2020. Politicians would be smart to start focusing on the things that matter to us. We can be strong ambassadors for companies, politicians, and products. When we see our friends sharing how excited they are about a certain politician on social media, we’re much more likely to take the time to go to the polls and cast our vote.
While general apathy toward politics is understandable, indifference to voting once every two years is unacceptable. There are legitimate differences of opinion about President Obama’s performance, but anyone in our generation should appreciate what he said last night in Chicago about voting: “it is not good enough simply to sit back and complain. Cynicism is not an option. Cynicism is not wisdom.”
If young people harness our collective power in the upcoming midterm elections, we can play a decisive role in the outcome. If we really want Congress to start paying attention to our generation, we need to show up at the polls and vote at the same rate as older demographics.