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Perspective | Magazine

Young people believe activism can help. But voting? That’s a different story

It’s absurd to think we aren’t voting in huge numbers because we’re unengaged. It's because the electoral system needs to earn our trust.

Adobe Stock photos/Globe staff photo illustration

There are a few quick paths to cynicism about democracy — one is watching nationwide mismanagement of a pandemic; another is watching your peers get tear-gassed at a peaceful protest. I’d already become disheartened in 2016, when, at 20, I watched the presidential candidate who lost the popular vote by several million win the election.

Voting is considered the gold standard of civic participation. So why are people between 18 and 29 the one group that consistently casts ballots at lower rates than everyone else?

It’s absurd to think we aren’t voting because we’re unengaged or simply don’t care enough about our future — just look at the Black Lives Matter protests and rallies organized by young activists across the United States. More than 8 in 10 young Americans believe they have the power, as a group, to change the country, according to a national poll released in June by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Almost as many say the COVID-19 pandemic showed them that politics is integral to their everyday lives.

Pundits and politicians pontificate about why young voters can’t be bothered to show up. We’re called lazy and self-centered, or blamed for being uneducated about the processes of civic participation. They generally settle on a solution of mass-shaming: Try harder and do better.

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I get it. I didn’t vote in the Democratic primary in March — something that feels extra embarrassing now, given the state of the world. Though recent trends point upward, youth turnout has been lower than all other age groups since 1964. Presidential elections always bring out bigger crowds. Youth turnout peaked in 2008 at 48 percent, driven largely by Barack Obama’s candidacy. But in 2016, it dropped to 43 percent. As for midterm elections, 2018 youth turnout was the highest in decades; one-third of registered young voters cast a ballot. Meanwhile, two-thirds of voters over 65 showed up.

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Young voters don’t need the condescension of our elders — we need them to work with us to fix the existing system. The pandemic highlights how hard it is to vote in this country. Though Colorado’s recent primary went smoothly, states that are trying to limit voting by mail, like Oklahoma, are in trouble. First-time voters must navigate a byzantine system to even begin the registration process. By the time I realized I needed to update my Massachusetts voter registration in February, it was too late — the online system requires a Massachusetts driver’s license, and mine is from Pennsylvania. With no national voter registration database, different rules across state lines disadvantage college students and other young people who move at high rates — since I turned 18, I’ve lived in three states, voted in two, and moved three times within Massachusetts.

Disparities in access to basic voting information are a recurring problem. Rey Junco, research director at Tufts’ CIRCLE, says there are “knowledge gaps in different groups of young people, like who can vote, how you register, and how you find out who’s on the ballot.” Some young people mistakenly believe they don’t have the right to vote if they’ve had their license suspended or been convicted of a misdemeanor (you can in most states, including Massachusetts). Information gaps increase in communities of color or low socioeconomic status, and that isn’t by accident.

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The legacy of Jim Crow policies in our not-too-distant past continues through gerrymandering, voter registration purges, and a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately targets people of color and results in large-scale felon disenfranchisement. According to Junco, growing up in a civically engaged family and community is a good indicator of voting behaviors. The effects of generation-spanning policies of voter suppression filter down and act as a barrier that many young white voters, including myself, don’t encounter.

This reality isn’t lost on Ikraam Mohamud, 18, who volunteers with Youth Justice & Power Union, a grass-roots organization for Black and brown youth activists in Boston. Mohamud says this country’s democratic system “has been a disappointment my whole life.” Though discouraged by elected representatives’ responses to recent BLM protests, Mohamud is adamant that she’ll vote in November. “If you think there’s a world where voting can actually make a difference, and you don’t vote, then no action is taken toward making that world.”

Michigan-based Naina Agrawal-Hardin, 17, is a national representative of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, an organization fighting climate change. “A lot of young people feel ashamed of not knowing enough about politics, or about voting, or about the issues,” she says, adding that “everybody should be making an effort to educate themselves, but there should be a lot more energy going into engaging young people.”

We need basic improvements: a simple, online national voter registration database that moves across state lines like people do, election days as national holidays, and expanded mail-in voting. When Colorado switched to all-mail elections in 2014, the demographic with the highest increase in turnout was young voters. Active-duty military personnel, a mobile population that includes many young people, have been voting by mail for decades.

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A process that consistently fails you and results in representatives who don’t actually represent your needs feeds hopelessness. On issues like gun control and climate change, Gen Z has higher stress levels than voters in other age groups, the American Psychological Association found, but that hasn’t translated into the motivation to vote. For many, protests seem like a more effective way to be heard than the ballot box.

Young people aren’t uniformly apathetic about the issues — we don’t even all agree on them. But we all see a system that hasn’t earned our trust. Despite this, by August 12, the deadline to register for the September state primary in Massachusetts, I will have located a printer and updated my registration via snail-mail.

If you want our votes, earn them, and fix our unfair and willfully inefficient system.

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Chloe Vassot is a graduate student at Emerson College. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.