"Apathetic," "uninformed" and "uninterested" are words that get thrown around a lot in conversations about millennial voters.
Seasoned politicos like to say we’re wasting our time taking selfies, posting stories, or texting our friends. They say we're not informed enough, smart enough or motivated enough to get out and vote.
And they think we definitely aren’t reliable enough voters to justify parties, groups or campaigns investing in reaching us with the goal of turning us out, especially when there’s a much smaller universe of regular voters who are much older and whiter than our generation.
What’s missing in these assertions, however, is the real question of why millennials don’t turn out in elections more regularly. Perhaps it’s not the apathy, the information gap, or a lack of interest.
Perhaps the problem is the failure of the established consultant class that has never actually tried to reach us with authentic messages, in voices that speak directly to us, and on platforms we spend the majority of our time on.
Take the problem of how people refer to young voters. They talk about “millennials,” but that leaves out an entire generation—Generation Z—of high-school aged people, who by 2020 will make up an entire third of the U.S. population. People aren’t even talking about these people correctly, let alone trying to talk to them correctly. And the failures in terms of reaching millennial voters only grow when we talk about reaching Gen Z.
When I think of young voters, I think of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The 17, 18 and 19-year-olds calling out BS, demanding “enough is enough” and declaring “it’s our turn” in response to the utter failure of politicians to keep them safe.
The ones who have organized rallies of millions nationwide, and who have helped contribute to unprecedented surges in voter registration rates of young people in recent months. In fact, according to a recent report released by Targetsmart, registration rates of voters aged 18-29 have significantly increased in key battleground states over the last seven months, specifically since the Parkland shooting in February.
These young people aren’t misinformed, apathetic or uninterested. They’ve just been outright ignored.
Last year, I started ACRONYM to change this. We build digital campaigns that create lasting and honest relationships with voters (not transactional or superficial ones), because that’s how we’ll keep them engaged beyond any one election cycle.
So what does that mean for targeting young voters? Here are a few things we’ve learned.
Look at their online presence as an advantage, not a hindrance.
We should leverage the fact that young voters are experts at texting, posting, tweeting, liking and sharing, and make it easier for them to use those tactics to engage in politics. At my organization, we’re doing this by building smarter, more user-friendly tools and programs to enable young people to use their phones to register to vote and make voting more accessible.
Make voting a social event.
One of the most promising strategies we are deploying in this area is relational organizing, or the idea of leveraging existing personal relationships to engage and activate people. In real terms, this means enabling young voters to check their friends' voter registration status, encourage their friends to register to vote, and provide them opportunities to get their friends to commit to going to the polls.
Relational organizing isn’t a new tactic. But this cycle, we’re making it more effective by combining it with digital tools and data, and training organizers and activists on how best to bring relational organizing into the digital age, and in turn empower them to take this work into their own hands.
For millennial voters, this can be particularly effective, as millennials highly value their friends’ opinions and are already experts in social engagement and communication. It is also a better way to reach millennials with messages that move us: through relational organizing, we engage one another with authentic, personal messaging on platforms we’re already using to communicate. Relational organizing is not easy and it takes time, effort, and resources. But organizing and winning elections always does.
Listen to what young voters are saying.
Motivating people to engage and vote, especially young people, is a constantly-evolving challenge, and it often, rightfully, comes down to giving someone a reason to vote.
For those of us who get to do this important work for a living, we must be radically honest with ourselves around what’s working and what isn’t when it comes to reaching and communicating with voters.
We must also take an introspective look at what we are offering voters and asking of them, and that means doing a far better job of enabling voters to tell their own stories rather than telling the ones we want them to hear, or broadcasting messages at them in language they would never use themselves.
Let’s provide voters with the tools they need to keep organizing, and let’s empower them to keep channeling their rightful anger at a political system that for too long has ignored them. They’re telling us “enough is enough.”
It’s time we listen.
Tara McGowan is the founder and CEO of ACRONYM.