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No-show millennials

An engaged generation that doesn’t show up at the voting booth

Jeremy Traum for the boston globe

So much for the Instagram election.
Heading into Tuesday, some wondered if this would be the moment when Boston’s tech-savvy millennials showed their electoral power. It seemed possible. Most of the 12 mayoral candidates talked, with enthusiasm and fluency, about late-night transportation and microapartments, Uber cabs and the arts — about issues that, to generalize grossly, would speak to young Bostonians.

Apparently, young Bostonians weren’t listening. To some degree, nobody was; compared with the 2012 presidential election, citywide voting rates were down by an average of 35 percent. But in many precincts likely to be filled with young professionals — in the North End, South Boston, Charlestown — the numbers dropped far more sharply. (And let’s not even get into Allston, where voting was infinitesimal.)

To some degree, this is the oldest political story in the book: Young people are transient, distracted, and disengaged. Wait 10 years, and they’ll be settled and ready to vote.

Still, there’s still some disconnect when you set those dismal voting rates against another gross generalization: Compared to many generations before them, millennials tend to be engaged and involved and interested in meaning. When they hang out at those bars late at night, they’re talking about global issues. They tweet with the world. They occupy stuff. But they don’t get nearly as engaged with what’s happening on the next block.

Young voters “will challenge something as big as the whole capitalist system and do the international stuff that they’re concerned about,” said Katy Harriger, a political science professor at Wake Forest University, who has studied millennials and voting. But locally, “they’re just not paying that much attention to what the issues are.”


Here comes the obligatory old person rant: Would it be so hard to find out? I promise you, kids: The information is available on your phone. Also, there is not a great distance between you and the polling place. You have youthful energy. Move.

Rant over. Now, let’s be a little more fair. There are some structural reasons why it was hard to get twentysomethings to the polls last week. Many moved into new apartments on Sept. 1, and didn’t have much time to make the Sept 4. registration deadline.


There are also cultural reasons why an engaged generation doesn’t consider electoral politics to be a useful tool. Our national politicians are not, as a whole, setting a good example. (Wake me when this debt-ceiling grandstanding is over.) And for those who do think about politics, it’s easier to get swept up in broad-themed national narratives — Republicans vs. Democrats, Brown vs. Warren — than to parse through the mild differences among 12 mayoral candidates.

Still, there must be some way to bridge the gulf between global goodwill and good local voting habits. I started asking around for ideas, and wound up talking to Trish Fontanilla.

Fontanilla, 29, fits some of those millennial stereotypes. She’s a vice president of Vsnap, a Boston-based tech start-up that helps businesses send video messages to customers. She volunteers with groups committed to Asian-American leadership and women’s empowerment. For her 30th birthday, she’s working to raise $30,000 for a global nonprofit called Charity: Water.

She also lives in Somerville, so she’s off the hook. But from conversations with her friends — and her past experiences as a twentysomething Boston resident — she could guess some of the barriers to voting, or to focusing on local politics at all. She never felt in the loop, she said, about registration deadlines and government meeting dates. She wouldn’t have seen the glut of mayoral TV ads, because she watches her shows online.

And, significantly, she wasn’t always sure how to engage in civic life. She once attended a forum about the changing face of Boston, and left at a loss: “I wanted to stand up at the end and say, ‘OK, what’s the action item? How can we help?’ ”


Maybe that’s a clue to coaxing millennials onboard: pairing a brand of movement-based idealism with a more explicit invitation — a spelled-out, tweet-worthy explanation of how their votes actually matter. Want to see results? Cast a high-impact vote in a low-turnout race, and move your issues toward the top of the agenda. Want to end poverty or work for social justice? Have a say in how to fix housing, education, and public health.

As a bonus, you might get the T to stay open later, too.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.