Statistically speaking, you won’t vote on November 6th. Historically, midterms engage roughly 40% of eligible adults. In 2014 it was 35.9%. For young people, it’s considerably worse. Millennials and Gen Z have the population numbers to dominate every election. Grouped together with Gen X, they actually did outvote Boomers and the Silent Generation in 2016. But Midterms are a strange beast. While older voters understand their importance, young people are typically slower to get interested in politics at the Congressional and state levels. These races just aren’t as splashy as the Presidental cycle.
Until now. In the wake of Parkland, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the Occupy movement, young people are more engaged than they have been since the 60s. So many people registered on National Voter Registration Day that the organization’s leaders were openly stunned.
“No one that I know of thought we would surpass 800,000 voter registrations,” Brian Miller, the executive director of VOTE (the non-profit that administers Voter Registration Day), told TIME. “That surprised all of us.”
A recent Instagram post by Taylor Swift prompted another dramatic spike in registrations. Suddenly everyone’s optimistic about the youth vote. But registered voters don’t always get to the polls. Things come up. Bosses ask for “one more quick favor.” Especially when you’re young, struggling financially, and don’t hold enough sway at work to disappear for a few hours without explicit permission (here are the rules about your voting rights as they relate to employment, by state). With all the potential distractions plus crowded polling places, the number of registered voters who stay home reaches into the millions. FiveThirtyEight goes so far as to assert that voters failing to make it to the polls made the crucial difference in the 2016 election.
But if young voters understood how aggressively their elders don’t want them to vote, if they fully grasped the degree to which this right is being manipulated in order to prevent them from getting control of the direction of the country, it would be a different story. Because the second Millennials and Gen Z recognize voting for the rebellious act that it is, this whole game is a wrap. They’ll take their place as the demographic that every would-be leader swoons over. Politics in America will be forever altered.
Do you know what gerrymandering is? If you’re young and want your vote to matter, you’d better. In the simplest terms, it occurs when district lines are re-drawn — often in absurd ways — to shape who votes where. Republicans typically try to isolate cities, the strongholds of Democrats; while Dems attempt to pair cities and rural locations together, thus neutralizing the efficacy of conservative voters. Whether it’s skill-based or ethics-driven, Republicans have been far better at manipulating this system. They drew the congressional boundaries in six of the ten most gerrymandered states and eight of the ten most gerrymandered districts.
Considering that young people heavily align with Democrats and Republicans do most of the gerrymandering, it’s fair to say that — taken on the whole — the overall act of redrawing districts steals power from the youth vote. This is no surprise: It’s a system run by Boomers and the Silent Generation. If you’re under 40, you should be pissed off.
Outright voter suppression also disproportionately affects Millenials and Gen Z. Younger generations are more diverse and therefore carry a larger weight of racially-based voter disenfranchisement. They are more heavily impacted by voter ID laws when school IDs fail to qualify as legitimate and are all-out blocked from voting when campus polling stations are overcrowded. Writer Hannah Brooks Olsen suggests that the one-two punch of young, eligible voters being time poor and not owning cars at the same rate as older generations make getting to the polls even less likely — a conjecture which makes sense, even if there haven’t been direct studies to affirm it.
Whatever the combination of factors, voter turnout amongst 18-24-year-olds bottomed out at 17% in the last midterm. This means that the two youngest voting age demographics — which could literally determine the direction of this nation — aren’t doing it. They’ve been sidelined while Boomers elect Boomer candidates. But the systematic marginalization of youth voting by older generations is also a testament of their power. It’s a sign of how much they could matter. And, as we race toward the midterms, candidates are (very slowly) starting to realize this fact.
If there’s anything approaching common knowledge about Millenials and Gen Z it’s that they favor authenticity above all things. They know what it’s like to be pandered to, and they hate it. This certainly plays into why young voters have been so drawn to Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke — who sweats like he’s just come inside after a day of hunting orchids in the Everglades, runs his Instagram like an upstart rocker on his first big tour, and speaks with sincerity about the issues affecting younger generations.
O’Rourke has little choice but to value newer voters — he’s not going to unseat Ted Cruz in Texas by stealing the incumbent’s Boomers. He needs minorities and their Millenial and Gen Z allies to hit the polls, and the authentic vibe required to do that seems to come naturally for him. But the whole idea of appealing to the youth hints at a bigger conundrum: Are young people refusing to vote because candidates won’t speak to their issues? Or are candidates refusing to speak to young people’s issues because they recognize that this demo won’t vote?
Regardless, it could all turn around in November. After this weekend, the registration process will be closed in most states, but even a higher-than-normal turnout rate among registered Millenials and Gen Zers has the potential to make the difference in tight races.
Imagine a world where candidates have to address issues of racial justice, student loans, and basic human rights for fear of angering the nation’s most powerful voting bloc. That’s how it was in the ’80s, when no candidate would dare talk about raising taxes because Boomers were racing to amass wealth. Imagine the NRA changing course and leadership because politicians recognize that an A-rating will stigmatize them with young voters who remain deeply invested in this debate. Imagine the power of every single presidential candidate appealing to millions of 20 and 30 somethings fighting to pay down their college loans, buy houses, and manage some semblance of work-life balance, rather than pandering to the less than 16,000 people in the entire nation who extract coal from the ground.
It could happen. It would happen. There even aren’t too many dominoes that need to fall. It’s simply a matter of young people registering while there’s still time and actually voting in the election on November 6th. And while the overwhelming support of young people for sexual, social, and racial justice is clearly threatening to certain politicians, this ought not be thought of as a partisan proposition. It’s simply an idea that’s time has come. An act of rebellion for a demographic whose very choice to use their voices threatens the powers that be.
Voting is an inalienable right, sure. It’s part of the system and the system can be boring. But when your vote poses danger to the status quo, getting to the polls is pretty fucking punk rock.
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