Recent discussions of voting demographics have sparked interest in millennial participation. Many political analysts have observed a lack of political participation, particularly in voting, between the ages of 18 and 32. There are a multitude of reasons for why millennials have not made it to the polls in the past, including financial stress. To remediate this problem, political scientists are discussing a variety of accessible ways to increase millennial voter turnout. Although it has often been said that trying to bolster millennial participation is not worthwhile, increasing millennial voter turnout is imperative because it can impact election results. Without an increase in turnout, we face a future filled with unprepared voters, apathetic adults, and a democracy unsupported by its largest generation.
Millennials are defined by the Census as anyone who was born between 1982 and 2000 (Khalid). For the sake of this argument, the millennial generation refers to those in college or recently graduated (ages 18 to 25). The millennial generation is now the largest generation in this country and, aside from standing out in sheer size, millennials also face a unique set of problems (Khalid). Millennials are the most in debt and least employed generation this nation has seen, creating fear of an uncertain future. Nevertheless, this generation has lived almost our entire lives with social media, leaving us connected to our peers and to information that other generations did not have access to.
Though voting is an important right as an American citizen, it is clear that millennials tend not to participate in this aspect of politics. In his article “Why Don’t Millennials Vote?” Russell Dalton considers the history behind this lack of political participation. When it comes to voting, he remarks, “Election analysts such as Philip Bump look at the historical data and conclude that any campaign that depends on the millennial vote is doomed to failure” (Dalton). Dalton is not alone in this argument, as political analysts remarked that the Bernie Sanders campaign may have suffered as a result of limited turnout from his millennial supporters (Brownstein). The trend continues, but do millennials have good reasons for not turning out to the polls?
One potential cause for this lack of participation is the extreme financial stress millennials are under. With such financial stress facing them, it makes sense that this generation is reluctant to participate in politics, especially if they do not feel like the government will help them. In his article, “The Kids Are All Left,” Paul Taylor explores the impact of the millennial vote. In discussing the financial situation of this generation, he notes, “They’re the only cohort ever to start their adult lives with nearly $1 trillion in student debt and more than $18 trillion in unpaid government bills” (Taylor 37). He goes on to say that Social Security benefits may not even be there to support this generation when they reach the retirement age (Taylor). Finally, Taylor notes, much more care from the government is being paid to the old than to the young. He writes, “The share of federal spending on programs that promote opportunity for future generations—education, infrastructure, basic research—has been declining for decades, while programs that provide economic security for older adults are on track to soon consume more than half the federal budget” (Taylor 38). If our country’s youth do not feel that we can rely on the government to relieve the intense financial stress we are facing, voting becomes less of a priority.
The financial stress that millennials face contributes to delays in their transition to adulthood, which may affect their decision to vote. Taylor argues that as a result of their economic stresses, millennials are slower to move out of their parents’ homes, less likely to get married, and more often unable to purchase homes and cars (38). All of these delays, Taylor notes, can be traced back to economics and can impact political participation. Dalton examines how millennial lives are different from those of other generations. He writes, “a growing percentage of the young have delayed their careers, marriage and children, which delays their political involvement” (Dalton). This change in lifestyle, combined with lower mortality rates, leads millennials to start doing things—including voting—later in life. The paradox lies in this idea that voting can be both a sign of development and a catalyst for development. If millennials participate in politics at an earlier age, they will also approach these other milestones with more confidence.
There are a multitude of reasons why millennials aren’t voting, including doubt in the worth of their votes and a different set of priorities than other generations as a result of extreme financial stress. Thus, the question becomes: should we care about voting? If millennials have good excuses to not vote or to start voting later, why is this a problem? Why should millennials vote?
Some political analysts argue that encouraging millennial voter turnout is not important because they have found other ways to participate in politics. Choosing not to vote, in other words, is not a sign of political apathy. As Dalton describes, it is important to note that the youth are finding other ways to get involved in politics aside from voting. By volunteering, protesting, or contacting officials, millennials can be politically active even if they don’t vote. In their article, “Digital Media Shapes Youth Participation in Politics,” Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh explore the ways that young people are active in “participatory politics” through social media: “Unlike traditional political activity, participatory politics are interactive, peerbased, and not guided by traditional institutions like political parties or newspaper editors” (52). These methods of participating are significant, and reveal that though this generation may not be voting, they are not apathetic when it comes to politics. Millennials are expressing themselves politically in the ways they know how to, which tend not to be in the poll booth.
On the other hand, millennials should recognize the importance of their vote. Taylor interviews a young man who criticizes the circular logic of some millennial voters. He remarks, “‘Young people get this idea in their head that their vote doesn’t matter and nothing ever is going to change,’ he explained. ‘And then they don’t vote. And nothing ever changes because no one ever votes’” (Taylor 36). If all young people could see the power in their votes the way this young man does, they may be more encouraged show up at the poll booth. Once millennials band together and begin to vote, they will begin to see the power in their votes. After all, real changes are made through voting and political activism, which should be bolstered, not replaced, by social media posting or online discussion.
Practically, increasing millennial voter turnout can change election results. Khalid breaks down the real impact of increasing millennial turnout. In examining the 2012 election numbers, she found that if more young people had voted, the results may have been different:
Researchers at CIRCLE estimated the number of voters under age 30 based on Census and voting data. In 29 states, they found that the youth vote in 2012 exceeded the margin of victory in that year’s presidential election. A shift in how that group voted, they argue, could have affected the ultimate result (Khalid).
Presidential candidates have a tendency to neglect campaigning towards millennials for fear that any support they garner may not translate to the poll booth. Khalid’s findings, however, are significant, because she shows that a focus on millennials could actually make a difference. As Khalid explains with help from Kawashima-Ginsberg, the youth vote actually is significant, and can make a tangible difference in election results. Khalid’s work shows that the millennial vote, when encouraged in a meaningful way, is very significant. After all, if no one thinks their vote matters, then no one votes, but if millennials ask for what we want we can make it happen.
Even if you do not support Khalid’s more pragmatic argument, there are civic reasons for why millennials should vote. Voting is an American right that has been long fought for. The 15th and 19th amendments established voting rights for people of color and for women, and the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18 on the basis of the draft for the Vietnam War. It is a sign of respect to those who fought hard for these rights to utilize them. As American citizens, it is important to use our voices, and voting is an important way to do that. Because the millennial generation is so large, we must practice using our votes now because one day we will be the leaders of this country. As future leaders, it is our responsibility to shape the country that we want to see, and voting can help us do that. If we allow millennials to slack on our voting duties, we will shape an apathetic generation, rather than one that is willing to participate and take action for what we would like to see happen.
It is important to encourage millennial voter turnout, and there are a few changes we can make to ensure that this happens. As I noted earlier, many young people express their political views through social media. Kahne and Middaugh argue that social media encourages traditional participation in politics. They report, “…those who engaged in at least one act of participatory politics were actually twice as likely to report voting as those who did not. These participatory acts seem to supplement rather than supplant traditional political activity” (Kahne 54). These findings contradict the argument proposed by Lance Bennett in his article “The UnCivic Culture: Communication, Identity, and the Rise of Lifestyle Politics,” that other methods of participating in politics are a result of “alienation” from the government and they act as a replacement for traditional political participation (Bennett). Surprisingly, however, participating in politics online seems to encourage voting rather than to replace it. This shows that social media can be utilized as a catalyst for voting, through online political debate, forums for sharing opinions, and even contacting friends and peers to remind them to vote (Teresi). Social media is one tool that can help to increase millennial voter turnout.
Aside from social media, there are other ways to encourage voter turnout. Dalton notes some of them:
Automatic voter registration systems as in Oregon and California make voting easier for young people who are likely to move often. Colorado’s 2013 reforms make it easier to register and vote on election day by pairing mail-in ballots with drive-through drop-off. This increases turnout and decreases the cost of vote administration.
Many millennials are in college when they are first able to vote, so streamlining the registration and mail-in ballot process can make a huge difference. As Dalton explains, these small changes actually decrease costs and can really impact voter turnout. Asma Khalid echoes these changes in her article, also mentioning “pre-registration,” which would allow for citizens who will be 18 by the next election to register before their birthdays (Khalid). By implementing any or all of these changes, we can greatly encourage turnout, giving millennials a much-needed boost with political participation and helping our democracy live up to its full potential.
The millennial generation is facing unique struggles, and as a result of extreme economic hardship, this generation has not felt that voting will help us, leading us to participate in ways other than voting or to avoid participating altogether. While participatory politics are significant, voting is what translates to tangible change. Things will only get better for millennials if we vote. Although some people argue that millennial voter turnout doesn’t matter, or isn’t worth worrying about, I have found that increasing millennial turnout is important. Practically, there are multiple states where increasing millennial voter turnout could actually change the outcome of an election. Aside from that, learning to use our voice by voting and trying to shape the future we will be leading are important parts of being an American citizen and of growing up. Millennials are not apathetic to political issues, and it is essential that we show this by increasing voter turnout, because that is the way to make the changes we want to see come to fruition. Increasing millennial voter turnout should become a priority for future campaigns, and there are multiple ways to do this such as utilizing online campaigning, implementing same-day or pre-registration, and making mail-in ballots available and accessible. Helping to increase voter turnout is possible and will make a world of difference. We should all want this generation to live up to be the strong, independent, and politically active members of this country that we know they can be. In order to foster this strong leadership and development, there is only one thing left to do: vote!
Bennett, Lance W. “The UnCivic Culture: Communication, Identity, and the Rise of Lifestyle Politics.” American Political Science Association. 31:4. 1998. Cambridge University Press. Web. 1 May 2016.
Brownstein, Ronald. “The Great Democratic Age Gap.” The Atlantic. 2 Feb. 2016. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Dalton, Russell. “Why Don’t Millennials Vote?” The Washington Post. 22 Mar. 2016. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.
Kahne, Joseph, Ellen Middaugh. “Digital Media Shapes Youth Participation in Politics.” Phi Delta Kappan 94.3 (2012): 52-56. Readers’ Guide Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). November 2012. Web. 27 April 2016.
Khalid, Asma. “The 10 States Where Millennials Could Sway The Election.” npr.org. National Public Radio. 24 February 2016. Web. 27 April 2016.
Lawless, Jennifer, and Richard L. Fox. Running From Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off To Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Web. 8 May 2016.
Taylor, Paul. “The Kids Are All Left.” Time 187.6/7 (2016): 34-41. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 April 2016.
Teresi, Holly, and Melissa R. Michelson. “Wired To Mobilize: The Effect of Social Networking Messages On Voter Turnout.” The Social Science Journal 52 (2015): 195-204. ScienceDirect. 3 October 2014. Web. 27 April 2016.