Hugh, an Independent voter in Massachusetts, is planning to vote for President Trump in the November election. As one of 500 voters on my panel, he has been in constant contact with me over the last four years. He’s educated, politically engaged, and passionate about our country. He’s also a grandfather of 22 children, 14 of whom are of voting age. Of those 14, only three plan to vote.
This is hardly an aberration. In the 2016 presidential election, nearly three times as many older people (ages 60+) voted as younger people (18-29). In this year’s presidential primaries, turnout among eligible youth voters was also low. Participation rates by voters under age 30 were less than 20 percent in each of the 14 states that held primaries on Super Tuesday.
Increasing turnout among younger voters should matter to any American interested in determining the course of our country. The 104 Democratic and Republican voters under age 30 on my panel differ based on their respective parties; Republicans tend to be antiabortion, pro-business, and anti-immigration, whereas Democrats are the opposite. However, there is also common ground: Younger voters are more likely to be passionate about climate-change legislation and gun control, which they see as defining issues for their generation.
Younger voters have various reasons for not getting their ballots in. Some say neither candidate inspires them. Those from deep red or deep blue states believe their one vote won’t matter. Jeff, 28, from Connecticut, told me he is just too busy. “I’m in the middle of launching a startup and it’s 24/7,” he said. “There is no time for me to make voting a priority.”
Caroline, 27, from New York, plans to vote, but she recounts a cumbersome process with “all the checking online (on very old, unclear websites), to find out if I was registered.” She was required to print out her credentials — when few in her generation own a printer — locate an envelope, and find a car to drive to City Hall. “Millennials are used to working at warp speed, and voting takes a significant amount of time and effort,” she explained. She described voting as “tedious, bureaucratic, and outdated,” with multiple temptations for young people to drop off at any step along the way.
Jose, 24, from Texas, feels that government doesn’t work for him. His student loans weigh on him, and he still lives with his parents because he can’t afford a place of his own. “Neither of the old white guys seems to have a solution for me,” he said.
Some young people are excited to cast their ballots, like Nick, a student at Boston University, who told me that “to be derelict in my duty to partake in crafting the future of our country is to turn my back on that country itself.” However, even those who are committed to voting acknowledge that many of their friends might stay home.
Still, youth turnout could be higher in November than in the past. According to Tisch College at Tufts University, voter registration among young people is up over the 2016 election, led by increases of more than 25 percent in Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, and New Jersey.
There are numerous strategies for encouraging young people to vote: Get-out-the vote campaigns on college campuses, ads on social media, and organizations that are mobilizing young people directly, such as Rock the Vote. Their messages focus on telling young people that they can make a difference, with reminders that our ancestors fought hard for the right to participate in democracy.
One strategy that could also encourage young people — especially Democrats — to vote is reverse psychology. We might share with them the perspective of Keith, a passionate Trump supporter from North Carolina: “I hope they all stay home! Ninety-nine percent have never worked, never paid taxes, think they are ENTITLED to $15 minimum wage, and deserve free everything! Stay home, you basement-dwelling, safe-space loving snowflakes!” (Although Keith’s statement isn’t accurate — a Harvard Business Review article laid out the case that millennials tend to be workaholics — young voters might be motivated to prove Keith wrong and run to the polls.)
There is a profound opportunity for younger voters to become the most influential voting bloc in November. It starts with their realizing that power is not a chicken/egg proposition.
The presidential candidates are speaking loudly about health care and lower drug prices and less so about student loans because they know that older people vote. Youth voters may be waiting for a candidate who will eliminate their debt, provide affordable housing, and so on, but that won’t happen if a candidate will win even if they don’t fight for those issues — at least under the current circumstances. On the other hand, no candidate would ever argue successfully to lower Social Security benefits, despite the financial case, because elderly people vote in droves and the candidate would lose in a landslide.
The message to young people must be that voting, with all of its friction and hassle, leads to power and influence — that if voters under 35 came out at the same rate as those over 60, they could decide the election. They would then have the influence they covet, as candidates shift their policies to attract this new and forceful voting bloc.
The dream is this: that when we reflect back on 2020 and speak about the profound shifts in our country, one of those will include an election that all came down to our youth — who finally got it, who came out despite the antiquated systems and competing priorities, and who became the most impactful political force in the history of our nation. Let’s all hope they rise to the occasion.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5979231-Diane-Hessan-Methodology.html.