Youth activists are driving social change today in ways not seen since the 1960s. From organizing nationwide protests and boycotts, to testifying before Congress and making the rounds on cable news, young people are making their voice heard via any and every channel. Well, perhaps every save one. If history is any guide, all of this energy won’t necessarily translate to the ballot box.
In 2014, only 15 percent of eligible voters ages 18-24 reported voting. Over the last 30 years, estimates have never placed that number above 25 percent. Compare that to 40-50 percent-plus for every other age group. Still, in my firm’s nationwide survey last month, 80 percent of young people under 18 said they plan to vote when eligible.
So, what happens to all of the enthusiasm and energy? Why don’t young people turnout? Some argue it’s simply apathy. They’re too busy Instagramming their avocado toast to make it to the polls. That argument is mostly refuted by our own research and the anecdotal evidence of the last year.
Others make the point that there’s a vicious cycle at play. Politicians don’t care about their interests, so they don’t vote. As a result, politicians don’t care about their interests. There’s certainly some truth to that.
But digging deeper, what exactly are the interests of young people? Aside from maybe college debt, what worries young people is the same as what worries most of us. Gun violence, systematic discrimination, stagnating wages, climate change. If November proves to be a repeat of midterms past, we think it’s because young people don’t connect with the issues and candidates of the cycle. And they don’t connect because they don’t see themselves reflected in our national political landscape — demographically and politically.
Consider who young people are today, and for whom they’re being asked to vote. They’re the most racially and culturally diverse generation in American history. Forty-six percent identify as a race or ethnicity other than white. Yet, women and minorities each make up less than 20 percent of lawmakers in the 115th Congress. According to the CDC, eight percent of high schoolers identify as LGBTQ, while only one percent of Congress does. The average member is 57 years old — that’s among the highest average in recent history.
Young people also refuse to be bound by the traditional ideological boxes. The plurality — 46 percent — of our survey respondents said they identify as independent or unaffiliated and 50 percent view themselves as moderates. While young people may be considered liberal on many social issues, those positions reflect more of a societal shift than a political philosophy.
For example, even a majority of our respondents who identify as conservative support universal background checks for gun purchases and believe that the government has a responsibility to ensure health coverage for all. Meanwhile, Congress is polarized. Radicalism prevents even the most agreed upon national issues from resolution. No wonder then that young people find it difficult to get excited about national politics.
So, what’s the solution?
The most obvious is perhaps the most difficult, and the most vital. Young people must enter the public arena themselves. A wave has already begun running for state and local offices. National organizations, including Run for Something and People for the American Way, are offering financial and administrative support to young people seeking public office across the nation.
But certainly that’s not the only solution. Consider the young-voter turnout for Bernie Sanders. In the 2016 campaign, Sanders crushed it with young people winning more votes among those under age 30 than the two presumptive major-party presidential nominees combined.
His secret? Giving young people something to vote for, not just someone. With skyrocketing student-loan debt, high unemployment, a lack of affordable housing, police brutality and other racial injustices, Sanders championed issues that young people care about, issues that affect them directly.
And his policy positions weren’t exactly commonplace, or popular among the establishment. They were fresh, radical even — single-payer health care, free public college, a $15 minimum wage. But mostly, his positions were just so deeply rooted in the interests of young people that it didn’t matter the messenger.
Young people aren't voting for candidates, they're voting for issues. Candidates must show them the issues that are at stake in the election, be clear about their positions on the issues—no matter how popular or unpopular they may—and talk about how these issues will be impacted by the results of the election.
With parties desperate for every vote and struggling to find the next crop of national leaders, young people are the answer. It’s time for campaigns to open the doors to them, give them a seat at the table, and actually engage them.
Meredith Ferguson is managing director of DoSomething Strategic, the non-profit consulting arm of DoSomething.org, a firm that helps brands engage young people for social good.