It is very unlikely that you, dear reader, voted this past November 4th. If you did make it to your polling place, or voted by mail, it is even less likely that you took the time to vote for your state representatives, country supervisors and city officials. I’d bet good money that you didn’t vote even if all I knew was that you were an eligible American. But given my readership, it’s likely that you’re under 30, and I would bet gold on your truancy.
That’s because just 12% of us voted on November 4th.
Think about that number—12% of Americans under 30. That’s just over 1 in 10 of your friends. The other 9, and probably you, either couldn’t be bothered or were busy throwing their hands up in disgust at our governance.
As a Millennial, there’s a part of me that doesn’t blame you one bit. Washington hasn’t given us much to be excited about lately except sequestration, extended war, and the miracle of Uncle Joe’s ever-whitening teeth. The 17% of us that showed up to vote in the 2012 elections, mostly for Obama, are still recovering from a hope hangover. And an informal survey I took while knocking thousands of doors in South East Iowa tells me that a good portion of the remaining 83% either doesn’t understand the role government plays in our daily life (and doesn’t care), or think that all politicians are crooks and the choice is the shinier of two turds, so what’s the point anyway?
This is sad. Your lack of participation hampers our democracy. Youth might be rash, but we are also brave, and represent a progressive voting block that can help push our government to adopt new ideas, and to look further into the future. That we do not show up to vote means that we remove any incentive for our representatives to listen to us.
I know this because I spent the five months before Election Day as a field organizer in Burlington, Iowa. My job was to build and motivate volunteer teams that could get the vote out. Most of my waking hours were spent with a phone to my ear, recruiting volunteers, or pounding the pavement to persuade voters to vote by mail. But all jobs have doldrums, and I spent mine on political blogs watching issues. I wanted to know what the candidates were building their platforms on.
What a candidate campaigns on is anything but random. The DSCC, DCCC, their GOP counterparts, and legions of think tanks spend millions of dollars building focus groups to determine the national mood and measure reactions to various campaign platforms. Each group builds and tests precise messaging, and then polls Americans to see how that messaging performs in the field. By the time a press secretary stands in front of cameras and proclaims Joe Shmoe’s steadfast support of raising the minimum wage to $10.10, they know that roughly 76% of likely voters in the district think that the minimum wage raise is a good idea. So if you know what a candidate views as his “tentpole” issues, the ones that will get him elected, you have a pretty good idea of who they think will actually show up to vote.
Now look at the issues that dominated the 2014 elections: social security, medicare, ISIS, the minimum wage, guns (despite the Democrat’s best efforts to suppress that one), and, of course, Obama. Only one of those issues is half-way directed at the younger generation: the minimum wage.
A whole spectrum of things a majority of our generation cares a lot about—open internet, the radical expansion of the surveillance state, college aid—was either entirely avoided or pushed aside as a campaign side note. In contrast, campaigns worked hard to attract the senior vote, making social security one of the key issues. It’s not hard to figure out why. Nobody thought we would vote, and we proved them right by giving them the exact same 12% number we had given them the last three midterms.
Exacerbating the turnout issues is that our generation gets their political education from national media organizations like CNN, FOX, HuffPo, and Comedy Central (Older voters are more likely to get their news from local sources). We therefore tend to vote almost exclusively on national issues, often treating our congressmen and senators as blue or red pawns that help tip the congressional balance one way or another. As long as we are focused nationally, our turnout will be low. We will continue to believe that our vote makes little difference. Those of us that do vote will continue to be disillusioned, because Federal Government moves slowly, and the effects of its actions are felt on timespans orders of magnitude larger than our attention spans. As long as we’re only thinking big, we will find that our voice is small, and little incentive to vote.
But in that same paradox is a solution to the young turnout conundrum. There’s a way to make our voice heard. We have to stop thinking nationally, and start thinking locally.
What a lot of us are missing is that the ballot box is not just an opportunity to tell the President what we think about immigration reform or healthcare. It’s also an opportunity to vote for somebody that wants to invest in better busses in your city, or build new bike lanes along the boulevards. It’s a chance to vote for someone who wants to change zoning laws so that more businesses can come into your community, or toughen them so that the streets stay quiet. You can vote for someone who wants to implement the common core for your local school board, or who wants a more free wheeling education in which high school students choose what they want to study. It’s entirely up to you. And the vote margins are small. In Cambridge, your city councilman might win by 500 votes. In Carthage, they might win by 50.
If we, as a generation, care about our communities, our impact will be more immediate. You’ll see it in the new high school gym whose bond you voted for, in an upgrade of the city sewage system, in the preservation of your community’s look and feel with updated building codes. You’ll see the things you hated at your high school fixed, your garbage picked up more regularly. These are things that have immediate returns on our quality of life.
The three ring circus that is the Iowa Caucuses are set to be fired up as soon as you’ve cleaned up your New Year’s party. The presidential candidates will start their grandstanding. Save yourself some stress and ignore it for at least a year. Instead, focus on the things around you. What in your community needs to be fixed? Who do you think is going to get that taken care of? Go to the ballot box for your local reps as much as for your presidential favorite.
If we can do that—if we can look into our communities and give ourselves another reason to vote, to care—then enough of us might show up to tilt the balance of power, to give ourselves a voice. Politics is not an intellectual exercise. The decisions that every level of our government makes have very real consequences, and so who we choose to make them matters. We should start by thinking about how those consequences will be felt closest to home.