Will Young People Really Vote?
I Contacted 20-Somethings Who Didn’t Vote In The Last Presidential Election, And Guess What? They’re Still Not Gonna…
I’m still looking for hard data about whether young people turned out in increased numbers for the primaries this week in California. All I’ve been able to find so far is scattershot anecdotal evidence that they did not. And perhaps stronger evidence in the form of exercises in explaining it away by party officials and academics, along the lines of even-if-they-didn’t-it-doesn’t-matter. They argue even if there was a high percentage of no-shows among young voters, it’s irrelevant, for a bunch of borderline insulting reasons like young people don’t really understand the primary process, or since primaries don’t really decide anything young people can’t get “into it”, or there are too many candidates for them to filter through.
And I’m not condemning young people, it’s just that this is one group that is going to have to turn out in greater numbers in order to flip the House or Senate (or both) in the fall.
In fact, I’m surrounded and inspired by young people who are incredibly engaged and eager to vote this year, and see an opportunity for real change. And most of them did not vote in the Midterm elections last time, either because they were not engaged, or too young. Thing is, these folks all voted and were really excited about the 2016 Presidential contest too.
And I continue to be astounded by the Parkland students and their impact and their fortitude. As I’ve written previously, their issue-based efforts to get younger people to register and to the polls reflect real insight and opportunity.
So About Those Young People I Know Who Didn’t Vote In 2016: Where Do They Stand Now?
In the past day or two I’ve made an attempt to contact people I know didn’t vote, and managed to arrange a phone call with one, and texted with another. Both these people are highly educated graduates of prestigious state Universities, one with an advanced degree. As with many young people, neither of them expresses any party affiliation, but I would not even label them as independents. They are utterly disinterested.
And they could care less about voting this year.
• The person I talked to on the phone said I was lucky to catch them, since they’d just returned from a mindfulness retreat where they were not able to use their iPhone. They didn’t vote in 2016 for two reasons: 1) they didn’t see any difference between Trump and Clinton, 2) they weren’t going to be in their home state of Pennsylvania on election day, and didn’t want the hassle of driving back just to vote, and getting an absentee ballot was a mess and “they” didn’t really count those anyway. At the time, I made an impassioned plea for them to get an absentee ballot anyway and vote for someone. They promised they would. They didn’t. Their view now: “I hear about all these horrible things Trump is doing but I haven’t seen anything that’s changed. My life’s exactly the same….All I see is people getting red in the face and a lot of anger and yelling at each other and I don’t need to be involved in that.”
• The person I communicated with by text I discovered had moved to Texas about a year ago. I quote them in an earlier column saying “there seems to be something going on with this Trump thing. At some point I’m going to have to look into it.” Now, they speak passionately about how cruel it is that families are separated at the border. And they’re thinking of doing a march. And they went to the gun control march. But when I ask about voting, I discover they haven’t registered, have no plans to, and don’t know who Ted Cruz or Beto O’Rourke are. (They are the Republican incumbent and Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas this year). When I bring this up, the answer is “you’re naive if you think any politician’s going to change anything”. So their issue seems to be a disconnect between social issues and the effectiveness of political action as a way of addressing them. (And wrapping it in willful ignorance about how to register or who the candidates even are, ensures that will continue to be the case.)
So What Can We Do About It?
Those responses kind of helped guide me, maybe, toward the beginnings of an answer that might encompass every age group: everybody who is engaged can try to draw more explicit connections between social issues and politics, and politicians need to demonstrate they can effect positive social change in visible, concrete ways. Which is hard, especially these days. And when we’ve got a President who’s especially good at distracting people. Also, since the people I spoke to (and even many politically active younger voters) don’t feel any affinity toward either party, messaging might be more centered around specific issues and the personalities of individual candidates, not party platforms and cookie-cutter policies.
Or maybe it’s just as simple (or difficult) as calling people up or texting them on election day, or the day before, and giving them a little nudge. Then again, some people react negatively if they feel they’re being told what to do.
Back to the text exchange: once again (I can’t help myself), I launch into an impassioned plea about why it’s so important to register and vote this year. And follow it up by forwarding information on how to register to vote in Texas. Here are the last two lines of our texts (slightly edited):
Me: “So you’ll promise to register?”
Them: “Fine. Sure.”