correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that young people overestimate their likelihood of voting by an average of 8.5 percent. They overestimate by an average of 8.5 percentage points. This version has been updated.
Kids these days.
Sure, we’ve spent the past year Instagramming our “self-care” regimens and writing Medium posts about CBD , but we had finally begun to get some sympathy from our skeptical elders: Our student debt is bad, our long-term economic prospects worse, and the climate of the planet is probably going to self-destruct just as we enter what should be our safe middle age.
But now the 2018 midterm elections are approaching, and we’re acting up again.
Or rather, not acting up. Taylor Swift may be pleading for our votes, but the fact is, turnout tends to be dismal among young voters, especially in nonpresidential years: An average of 23 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the past four midterm elections, compared to 45 percent overall. In 2014, only 19.9 percent of voters under 30 cast ballots, a historic low. And while the share of young people who say they will “definitely vote” in next week’s election has risen to as much as 40 percent in some surveys, we’ll see how many of those make good on their word.
Robby Mook, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, suggests we temper our expectations. “It’s going to be better than 2014. It’s not going to be better than 2016. That’s all we can really compare it to.” Ire at President Trump may have increased interest in voting, generally, but that may not translate to actual turnout, Mook points out. Young voters are traditionally the most disillusioned with the political process, and that sentiment remains alive and well.
This week, New York Magazine ran a story about why some young people won’t be going to the polls, featuring interviews with 12 likely non-voters between the ages of 21 and 29. Some of their reasons could almost be parody: One interviewee didn’t want to use an absentee ballot because he “hates mailing stuff”; another suggested “setting voting up so that it’s all on social media.” A third declined to “spend four hours of vacation doing something I don’t quite want to do.”
Several did highlight real barriers to access, and almost all made clear the need for more easily navigable voting processes: automatic voter registration, for instance, or an absentee-voting protocol standardized across all states. Many of those interviewed noted their disillusionment with the political system, especially after Trump’s spectacular 2016 upset, but none of their excuses entirely convinces. The stakes this year are too high.
The margins in the midterms are sure to be narrow in many places, which means small numbers of individual votes can actually make a difference. In an extremely tight contest — such as Missouri’s Senate race between incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican challenger Josh Hawley — a few percentage points of youth voter turnout could be enough to decisively shift the outcome. The same is true in federal, state and local races all over the country — and both parties know it, which helps explain why voter suppression has lately been taken to such egregious new levels .
So, yes, voting sometimes seems futile, but the stakes are high and the game-changing potential is real. The clear need for change makes this midterm year more like a presidential one. Will we shred our health-care system perhaps beyond repair , or take steps toward shoring it up? Will we hold accountable a president who has gleefully violated the norms on which our country depends, or grant him a mandate for more of the same?
There are still more than 200 migrant children in detention, separated from their families as the result of last spring’s disastrous “zero tolerance” border policy. And, reportedly, the Trump administration is considering a second round of family separations. Waves of gun violence go unchecked by our current representatives; perhaps these could be addressed by new ones less beholden to the National Rifle Association.
And, of course, there is the cruelty — both physical and ideological — directed at citizens of different races, religions or, simply, political identities. The dangers they face have become all too apparent in recent days.
We should vote as if our lives depend on it. Maybe they do.
There are reasons for optimism. According to John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, young people consistently overestimate the likelihood of their voting by an average of 8.5 percentage points. But that means, even if one were to use a high-end estimate of that drop-off, “2018 is still very likely to be the largest youth turnout [for a midterm election] in at least 32 years.”
Cynicism is so very Gen X ; 1990s fashion is making a comeback, but we don’t need to bring back the crippling apathy along with it. If reports are to be believed, millennials and our Gen Z counterparts have already ruined diamonds, and napkins, and cereal, and marriage, and divorce. Let’s not let our flakiness ruin America, too.
This year, in fact, we may have a real chance to improve it.