In addition to being (obviously) the laziest, most narcissistic and most entitled generation ever, millennials have claimed for themselves yet another generational superlative: least likely to vote.
A new report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University finds that, in 2014, youth voter turnout fell to its lowest level on record. Just 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-old citizens cast ballots last fall, compared with an average of 26.6 percent for the same age range in other midterm elections over the previous 40 years.
To be fair, voter turnout hit record lows across the board, not just among younger voters. But among the young, turnout fell especially steeply from an already low baseline.
The question, of course, is why. Why is this generation, which seems to consider itself so socially conscious, leaving democracy behind?
One common narrative is that in 2008, young people got overly psyched about the potential for Hope and Change. Then, when they inevitably became disillusioned by hopeless and changeless Washington, disgusted millennials checked out of America’s political system.
This oversimplifies things, but it is true that over time young people have withdrawn from traditional social and political institutions, including everything from political parties to churches. In polls, millennials say they trust almost no authority figure to do the right thing most or all of the time: not Congress, not the president, not the Supreme Court, not the media, not Wall Street and definitely not federal, state or local government. Mired in debt, with scant job prospects, young people feel abandoned by the organizations that once claimed to represent their interests. Perhaps as a result, millennials have elected not to participate in the elections that grant such figures their authority. Only a third of young people say their vote will “make a difference” anyway, according to the latest Harvard Institute of Politics youth poll.
That’s not to say that today’s youth are completely alienated from the society they live in, or that they are indifferent to its politics. They may simply be expressing their civic activism and community concerns through alternative avenues — rainbow-shaded Facebook profile photos, BlackLivesMatter hashtags, online petitions — rather than the polling booth. A quarter of millennials say that at least half of the Facebook posts they see are related to politics, a higher share than is the case for Facebook users from older generations.
Political campaigns also did relatively little to try to engage with millennials in the midterms, in either the messaging they chose or their mobilization efforts. More highly targeted, “Big Data”-driven campaigns, which prioritize likely and swing voters, may have written off young people as hard to reach. Millennials, after all, are less likely to have landlines, fixed addresses, voting records or any tolerance for TV commercials (or TVs).
“Youth tend to be low priority for campaigns in terms of actual targeting,” says Peter Levine, associate dean at Tufts’ Tisch College. He hypothesizes that only when races become really competitive — which they generally weren’t in the last midterm cycle — do campaign managers resort to “scraping the bottom of the barrel for voters and starting to invest in youth outreach.”
This may be one reason you’re seeing so many of the 2016 presidential candidates suddenly proffer half-baked solutions to the student-debt crisis. The youth vote looks up for grabs in a very competitive race, and complaining about student loans is an easy way to signal that you care about millennials’ issues (even though, of course, not all young people attend college).
Finally, the most disturbing possible contributor to depressed youth turnout has to do with voter suppression.
Between 2010 and 2014, at least 22 states passed laws that made it harder or less convenient for eligible voters to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. These include new photo-ID requirements with restrictive lists of acceptable identification (including no student IDs); shorter voting hours; the end of same-day voter registration; and prohibitions on out-of-precinct voting.
It’s still hard to quantify exactly how much such measures affected turnout in 2014, but 2013 research and more recent court testimony (about North Carolina’s contested election laws) suggest that such barriers especially depress youth voting. This is probably not a coincidence, since young people tend to vote Democratic, and most of these restrictive laws were shepherded through by Republicans.
So maybe millennials are rejecting the democratic process. But remember, the democratic process has also been ejecting millennials.