Crushing student loan debt, no jobs, and a burning planet. Give a damn? Then vote. It matters more than you think.

Young people hold the power. They just don’t know it.

Story by Alfredo Camacho Lopez


The power of the youth vote is slowly becoming a key factor in political races across the country as politicians become more aware of the potential that Millenials have as a voting bloc. Even with this occurring, there is a shortfall of Millenials, those born between the years 1982 and 2000, who vote in comparison to other generations such as Generation X and the Baby Boomers. Voting is quite possibly the most important responsibility and opportunity given to a country’s citizens. If you ask the Sons of Liberty circa 1773, voting is definitely more important than paying taxes (“No taxation without representation” ) and if you were to ask any sane human being, voting is much more important and exciting than jury duty.

The process of voting is not painful in-and-of-itself; you get time off work, the lines are not nearly as long as Chipotle, and you get a cool sticker to show off to your friends on Instagram and Facebook. However, even with the ease of voting and all the awesome perks, Millenials still do not make their way to the polls come election day.

It was supposed to be that when we turn 18, after the short honeymoon phase of buying cigarettes and lottery tickets, we would move on to the real reason we turned 18: voting. But things do not always turn out as planned. The reason why young people do not vote is a question that has baffled political scientists for decades. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate and an expert on American voting patterns past and present, has said that young people think voting is a waste of time, they don’t trust politicians or that their vote doesn't matter.

There are many questions, theories, thoughts and ideas about young people and why we don’t vote. Some even argue that there is no inconsistency with the numbers of us that vote. The research could fill pages and pages of cyberspace. For our purposes, we are going to accept the truth, which is that those under 30 need to do a better job at voting relative to our population. After all, admitting we have a problem is the first step.

If you think back to politics in 2008, you might remember the Governor of New York’s scandal with a prostitute, California’s very short stint as the nation’s second state to legalize same-sex marriage, President George W. Bush almost being hit by a shoe while in Iraq, and most importantly, 2008 is the year we will all remember as the year the United States elected its first African-American president. What you probably do not remember is that 2008 was the year that young people in the United States rushed to the polls and were a game changer in the election. Gans wrote an article for Huffington Post in 2012 about the incredible turnout of youth and African Americans in that election. He reported, “Young Americans (aged 18–24 for purposes of comparison with previous elections) participated in 2004 and then again in 2008 at the highest rate since 1972 when 18- to 20-year-olds were first enfranchised nationally. It led some optimists to proclaim that a new “Millennial” generation of idealistic activism had burst on the scene. The majority of college educated voters were driven by anger at President Bush and the U.S. creation of and involvement in the war in Iraq in 2004. They were motivated by hope in 2008.”

So, we’re good right? Not quite. Although the youth vote did increase in 2008, our vote is very inconsistent and unpredictable. We may vote one election cycle, but fail to return for the next. This is a problem that needs addressing. The vote of the younger generation is so problematic that there are websites and organizations dedicated to shifting the numbers and encouraging us to vote.

One such website is YouthVote.org, whose mission is: “To highlight issues that are important to young voters, including education, jobs, student loans and credit, financial security, climate change and the environment, sustainability, work-life-balance and fair trade. The goal is to share content on these issues and get the youth involved in the political process, from local to national through voting.” Another organization working on mobilizing young voters is Rock the Vote.

You might remember Sean P. Diddy Combs, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, or whatever he was called at the time threatening your life if you did not vote. Vote or Die! was the campaign made famous by MTV in the 2004 election. They bombarded MTV with messages asking young people to vote. But are these websites and organizations working? According to a 2004 article in the Washington Post “Vote or Die? They did vote,” in 2004 nearly 21 million voters under the age of 30 went to the polls. “For that age group, it’s the biggest turnout, in raw numbers, since 1972,” said Thomas E. Patterson, professor of government and the press at Harvard University, in the article.

Great. 2004 and 2008 were youth dominated years. So what’s the problem? There are many. Ever since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1972, the University of Maryland-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) reports the voting trend for those under the age of 30 has continually spiraled downward. Another problem is lack of consistency. While other age groups have a very consistent and predictable voting pattern, those aged 18–29 have a very inconsistent and unpredictable voting pattern. Elections are dominated by issues that affect older populations such as Social Security and Medicare, which explains why their voting trends are higher and more stagnant compared to young people who are not nearly as consistent as their older counterparts. Groups like the American Association of Retired Persons AARP are quick and successful in mobilizing the Baby Boomers (those born between the years 1945–1964) to vote, but Millenials do not have the same political stature or vested interests to mobilize at the same capacity.

According to Richard McDaniel, writer for YouthVote.org, the ability for young people to vote and affect an election is definitely possible and has been done. We saw this in 1992 and 2008 with the election of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively. Both candidates represented hope and a fresh start. What McDaniel could not answer was the question of why young people do not keep up the momentum. In 1992 and 2008, the numbers of young people were high, but dropped significantly in 1996 and 2012.

What causes young people to stop caring after being so empowered four years prior to the reelection of a U.S. president they viewed as full of hope and change? Political scientists believe it is because politicians fail to address issues that interest youth, such as unemployment, higher education and climate change. Another hypothesis is that young voters are only interested in change elections, or elections that unseat a political party from power. After this is achieved, young people tend to lose interest in the day-to-day of government.

“I voted in 2008 but not in 2012,” said Adriana Flores, a 25-year-old student from Citrus College in Los Angeles, “I didn’t see the importance and there was nothing that drew me to vote.”

Why young people do not return to re-elect a president they helped elect is anyone’s guess, but time is better spent figuring out what can be done to empower the young electorate of this nation. Not just to vote, but to put our issues on the table.

Encouraging young people to vote is an obstacle that organizations have been working on for decades. In addition to Rock the Vote, YouthVote.org and ProjectVote.org, other campaigns with this same goal are the Campus Election Engagement Project, Declare Yourself, Generation Engage, Mobilize.org and the League of Young Voters Education Fund, just to name a few. What tactics are they using? What do they think could remedy the lack of civic participation among young people? There are a number of campaigns and they all agree on one thing: engage them while they are young and they are more likely to vote when they get older.

Political Scientists, including McDaniel and CIRCLE, agree that it is in high school when we become politically-minded. We begin to assess how we feel about the world, our state, our country. For this reason, it is important that young people are engaged in high school. We learn how to find the circumference of a circle, what caused the Civil War, and we can finish the line “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” We learn the periodic tables and how to dissect dead animals, but do we learn how to vote? Do we learn about the different levels of government and what their impact is? Are we taught how our city council and our mayors are elected? Our School board? For most of us, not until college. This shortcoming, the lack of education and engagement in high school before we are sent out into the world, is where everyone agrees is the most important time to learn about voting and to begin to see the importance of it. Failing to engage students in high school risks sending out uninformed and uninterested young adults into a world dominated by politics with no clue on the subject.

What about those young people who went off to college without proper education and engagement? Are they a lost cause? Organizations that have been successful in engaging college students have cited that physical presence of a person, not a commercial, radio ad or social media post, encouraging them to vote and explaining the issues, candidates and impending laws is effective in mobilizing voters. Arlene Gonzalez, a 23-year-old Cal Poly Pomona University student, agreed and offered her own advice. “I think someone my age who can break it down for me would make me more likely to vote, the reminder is nice. I also using think using social media to make videos and messages that use humor would be great. Things go viral so easily, why can’t voting be one of them?”

With social media and other things going viral so easily, why haven’t we used social media to our advantage and rallied young voters? It seems like a no-brainer right? Nothing a meme can’t fix. Not quite. CIRCLE conducted a survey in 2010 titled “Why Young People Don’t Vote.” When asked why they do not vote, young people had a variety of excuses. The top response, 34.7 percent, said they were too busy or voting conflicted with work. The second highest response was that they were out of town or away from home. The other responses included that they felt their vote did not matter and that they forgot. These responses only reinforce the importance of educating young people. Voting is a right that your job has to allow you to do. Nothing can be more important than casting your vote and young people must be reminded that their vote matters, if not in the federal elections, at least in their city, school board and state elections.

“They should make people vote when they release a new iPhone, then young people would do it. They camp out in every city for that, why not for making a difference in your community and not just getting the latest technology?” said Elaine Madrigal, a 21-year-old Cal State Fullerton University student. “I definitely don’t think anyone emphasizes how important it is; the problem goes so much further than information, it’s trying to change the belief that voting, not the latest dance craze or famous person, should be a priority to us. It sucks being the only person my age who cares. How do I do it alone?”

Empowering an army of young voters could drastically change the political landscape. The reasons why young people are not voting are complicated and range from time, messaging and interest. There is no right or wrong answer on how to convince and empower young people to vote in numbers proportionate to Baby Boomers and other generations. What is true is that more young voters means shifting issues to fit our likes and dislikes.

If politicians realized the power of the young voter, the messages they preach would become tailored to us. Things like college debt, higher education, climate change and unemployment become issues that politicians will focus on. We will no longer be ignored and we can easily become the deciding vote in every election; state, local and federal. After all, we are the generation of Twitter, Facebook, Vine and Instagram and the generation most affected by the current recession and lack of job opportunities. This is a formula for action waiting to happen.

Political scientists and campaign strategists argue that young voters are a sleeping giant. Some are even afraid of the potential young people have. On October 8, hosts of Outnumbered, a Fox News show, went as far as to discourage young people from voting. They argued young voters are unaware of the issues and what is going on in the world. “Do you really want to motivate them to vote and be ignorant at the polls?” said Harris Faulkner, a host on the show. Why would Fox News discourage young people from voting? It could be because young people are far more inclined to vote Democratic and it is no secret that Fox News leans Republican. It could also be the fact that young people were the deciding vote in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania during President Obama’s re-election in 2012. Simply put, had Fox encouraged enough young people not to vote back in 2012, Obama could have lost the election.

What would happen if young people were to take the helm of politics in America by voting and realizing their potential as a powerful voting bloc? To quote Mean Girls, “The limit does not exist.” Is it likely? According to a Harvard’s Institute of Politics national poll of 18 to 29- year-old Americans, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, less than 23 percent are expected to vote in 2014. Among the issues that will be contested in 2014 are climate change, the income gap and Obamacare. People up for election are all 435 House of Reps seats and 33 U.S. Senate seats, 38 gubernatorial seats and many state senate and assembly seats.

With the elections less than a month away, if you are not registered to vote, it is too late to vote on November 4th, but shifting a culture by becoming engaged in your community and changing one’s way of thinking is something that can be done on a daily basis, not just during election time.

“Voting isn’t something we do once every year, or once every four years. It is something we have to always be aware of,” said Liliana Zepeda, a 22-year-old Cal State San Bernardino University student. “ When something goes wrong, when we are unhappy with what is going on in our city, our state or our country, we have to remember that there is strength in numbers, that we elect people to make decisions for us and that we will always have the power to get them out of office and elect someone there who will work for us.” Zepeda added that there is nothing more dangerous than a group of young voters with a grudge.

If we can channel our energy from Occupy Wall Street to occupying the voting polls, America would be a totally different country.” -Liliana Zepeda

Alfredo Camacho Lopez studied journalism at Mt. San Antonio College where he served as an editor of the Mountaineer student newspaper and Substance magazine. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Loyola Marymount University. He has been involved in local government empowering youth voice for over 10 years. He currently works as a policy assistant at Day One, a community-based nonprofit organization with a 25-year history of providing effective, high quality and culturally-sensitive public health education.

This story is a part of a special alumni series. Students who have graduated or transferred from Mt. San Antonio’s journalism program are featured weekly.

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.

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