It’s Time To Kill The ‘Apathetic Young Voter’ Myth Once And For All

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The 2016 presidential election marked the first time Millennials matched Baby Boomers for “percentage of population eligible to vote.” When boomers held the title of largest eligible voting group, they delivered a measure of power in the political process that had never been seen before. For decades, they steered the country — passing policy that directly benefitted them.

Would millennials leap into the political fray and wield their numbers like a cudgel, picking the presidential candidate that made the most sense for them and their lives? Most people said “LOL. Prolly not.” Because young people are consistently painted as more apathetic and cynical than their predecessors, especially when it comes to voting. But, is that trope backed up by facts?

Despite the low favorability rate of the two 2016 presidential candidates and the discord of the election, turnout rates for those 18-29 were nearly identical to those in the 2012 election, jumping up from 49 percent to 50. That’s right around where they were in 2004 and 2008 as well. Even in 1964, only 50.9 percent of people 18-24 voted, so voices droning on about how things were “in our days” may be right about how much cheaper gas was, but not about voter turnout. But while these rates have remained somewhat consistent, engagement could be better when it comes to non-presidential elections and crucial ballot measures. To say nothing of state and local elections.

According to a poll from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 76 percent of millennials paid attention to the presidential election, but only 28 percent did the same with congressional contests. Why does this matter? Well, the 2016 election saw 97% of congressional incumbents get re-elected, despite a 19% approval rating for Congress on Election Day. Dissecting track records and policy stances for congressional candidates could make a difference when it comes to that odd discrepancy, so more focus is needed by young voters on both sides of the fence. It’s pretty clear that the institutions we rely upon won’t function for all without pressure from an engaged citizenry — pressure that manifests itself through activism, which young people excel at, but also through votes.

Abby Kiesa, the Director of Impact at CIRCLE, makes it clear that the negative frame in the media about apathetic young voters can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, dissuading young people from participating while simultaneously eliminating any responsibility older people have to help younger generations engage.

“Research suggests that in order for people to take action, there has to be some sort of intervention,” she says. “Someone has to ask them or someone has to provide some sort of space or resources.”

A solution that can be put in place in every person’s life is to listen to millennials, welcome them into the civic discussion, and enable them to affect the world around them in a positive way — not write them off or tune them out.

“I think that being a part of spaces where youth voice is acknowledged and valued and where you have a kind of supportive environment is really helpful” Kiesa says. “So you can kind of build skills and maybe practice and think about yourself in a different way.”

One non-profit that Kiesa points to as a standout is Youth Build, which teaches young people without jobs or degrees construction skills by setting them up to build affordable housing in their communities. Aggregate data steadily demonstrates a lower level of activism and civic engagement among non-student Millennials, so efforts like this are crucial — preparing people to become agents of change in their communities, even without college.

“People have a job for one or two years where they’re building workforce skills, but it’s also very focused on building skills to contribute to a community,” says Kiesa of Youth Build.

Nikki Fisher is the Executive Director of The Bus Project, another important non-profit that seeks to engage young people in democracy throughout Oregon. Previously, Fisher worked as the Chief of Staff and campaign manager for Oregon State Senator Sara Gelser. She’s also run field and advocacy efforts with the ACLU of Florida — meaning Fisher has extensive experience contacting Millennials and assisting them in activism.

“We like to push back against that notion that young people aren’t engaged or excited about politics,” says Fisher, “because when we go in the classrooms and we register students, young people are really excited about opportunities to get engaged and to volunteer. The millennial generation donates more money and they volunteer more. So we know that folks are really fired up. We just have to give them opportunities to share their voice and get involved.”

Fisher’s organization is directly responsible for welcoming young people into the political arena. They helped pass a bill that allowed for the registration of 320,000 new voters, increasing youth turnout by 7 percent and shifting the state from the 31st worst state in the nation for voters of color to the second best.

“We’ve seen some of our folks draft legislation ideas with our state representative,” Fisher continues. “We’ve seen folks that have worked with their local folks to create language around environmental protection. We’ve seen so many of them go on to absolutely incredible things based on their own experiences with the Bus.”

Fisher is stoked on the potential she sees in millennial activists. “One of the things that we’re really excited about right now is there’s a ton of momentum and excitement with young people getting active and engaged. I’m really excited because I think one of the things that the Bus Project provides is an opportunity for young people to build their own voice and their own power.”

Among both organizations encouraging youth activism and the activists themselves, there is a core value of positivity. Chloe Maxmin is the co-founder of Divest Harvard — a climate campaign she helped grow from three people to over 70,000 — and the founder of First Here, Then Everywhere, which empowers youth climate activists. Maxmin points to the innate morality of millennials.

“The young people that I’ve worked with have such a profound sense of right and wrong,” she says. “No matter what authority figures say the opposite, young people still know, and that kind of deep conviction is something that is an inside out process. It comes from young people and then it’s transferred out into the world through their action.”

Maxmin’s words are unmistakably upbeat, but she also acknowledges the challenges. “It can be extremely daunting to figure out what to do, especially in an era where so much is going wrong. How do you plug in?” she asks. “That’s where I think having effective structures and effective organizations is really critical. They can transfer that really powerful morality into real world action.”

For Maxmin, that action hinges on being thoughtful.

“I think when we put more thought and strategy into our work, then it’s more powerful and effective, and lasts longer,” she states. “It’s more meaningful to individuals and has a bigger impact on the world. I can think of a lot of times with organizing, where there’d just be this big thing happening and we would respond to it and we would stand up and respond, but at the same time we would have the space to reflect upon what happened and figure out how we could move forward in a way that is responsive not just in the moment but in the long term.”

Clearly, while the numbers paint a complicated picture about turnout and engagement from millennials, any notion about general apathy or a doomed future doesn’t hold up. We can all always be more engaged, but conversations, emotions, and memes are becoming deeds, sacrifices are being made, and millennials are canvassing for signatures, running for office, attending council meetings, working phone banks, organizing and attending protests, writing posts, and working to pass legislation. It’s time to smash the cynicism about millennial voters and celebrate the work that is being done to bring people into a conversation that is contentious but also vital to our nation’s long term future.