Millennials. The buzz word of this election cycle, and for good reason. We are the largest demographic in the country representing 77 million people and 24 percent of the population. We are often over represented in national dialogue because we amplify our opinions through social media, and more recently through direct social demonstration in urban centers throughout the nation from Charlotte to Tulsa. However, our votes have not been as resounding as our voices. Despite the number of millennial eligible voters (69.2 million) almost exceeding eligible Baby Boomer voters (69.7 million), lower levels of registration and inconsistent participation have deluded the power of our votes. In 2012, 72 percent of Baby Boomers participated in the election, only 46 percent of millennials participated in the same year.
Further deluding the power of the millennial vote is this idea of protest voting, that we should support a third party candidate even though they cannot win, just to show our dissatisfaction with the two major party candidates. What do we gain from this? Our candidate will lose. Our issues will lose. We will lose. The idea of protest as a deliberate and coordinated effort to lose is a form of protest that does not achieve any of our desired objectives. As Jesse Williams recently proclaimed in a GOTV ad to millennials voters, “You say you are making a statement by not voting but nobody hears it.”
We simply cannot become the largest and loudest generation with the least amount of political capital.
Democracy is hard work and change is not easily achieved. Contrary to the false hope created by too many GOTV efforts targeting millennial voters, change does not happen by just voting, although, it does start there.
We are a remarkably powerful generation, here are four ways we can begin flexing our political power, on and beyond Election Day.
The power to elect candidates that support our agenda and reflect our values is the power we are most familiar with. This is also the power that is most often promoted to us because it is the kind of power that has a greater benefit to others then to ourselves. Our vote helps others win. However, it often feels like we have forgotten how much we, millennial voters, have the power to pick leaders that determine the direction of our communities, our country, and the world.
In 2008, Barack Obama got three million more votes from young people then John Kerry did just four years prior. Barack Obama won by just three million votes. Had those young people stayed home the way they did in 2004 then Barack Obama would not have a path to victory. Our power rest in the fact that we represent the margin of victory.
Demonstrations of power beyond electing candidates become less familiar to many young voters, primarily because they are not promoted as much from those asking for our votes. Here’s how we continue to flex our power far beyond Election Day.
Voting is not the end of the democratic process, it is the beginning.
Not every candidate that we vote for will be perfectly aligned with our issues. Pause…and take a second to let that resonate. We cannot be the idealistic generation that will not vote unless the candidate is exactly where we are on every issue. If we are indeed the margin of victory, and I can show multiple graphs that prove that we are, then we also have the power to negotiate candidates closer in line with our issues.
In 2008 Barack Obama received the overwhelming support of the LGBT community despite being publicly opposed to same sex marriage. However, as a result of relentless demonstrations, lobbying, and negotiating from one of his most committed voting blocks, the Obama administration not only overturned the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy but President Obama also publicly announced his support of marriage equality, paving the way for the historic Supreme Court decision officially making marriage equality the law of the land.
If we stand united, vote consistently, and negotiate passionately, we can move the issues most important to millennials the exact same way the LGBT community did.
Elected officials navigate competing interest and multiple priorities from their first day in office. Once we have cast our votes and initiated negotiations with the candidates that we have elected to office we also flex our power to ensure that our issues remain their priorities.
Early in the first Obama administration many Latino activist grew frustrated as they observed disproportionate attention going toward legislation to pass Obamacare and not enough attention on comprehensive immigration reform. Multiple demonstrations were held outside the White House and US Capital until the President initiated a series of executive orders to reduce mass deportations across the nation. This was not the win that the Latino community was seeking, but it demonstrated this President’s commitment to their issues and their power to directly change their communities.
There is one kind of power that we likely hear the least about because it is typically not to the advantage of those asking for our votes, the punitive power to fire those that do not advance our agenda or support our communities. Quite frankly this is my favorite expression of political power and is arguably the greatest democratic tool we have to advance our communities.
We gave them the power and it is time for us to start taking it back.
One of the most effective demonstrations of punitive power exercised by young people recently was in the 2016 race for Cook County State’s Attorney. The incumbent State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez, had been harshly criticized and protested by Black Lives Matter and other activist for not filing charges against the police officers that gunned down unarmed Laquan McDonald thirteen months prior. Young people started a movement against Alvarez that resulted in thousands of newly registered voters, a sophisticated grassroots campaign, and a national hashtag that earned national coverage…#byeanita. Anita Alvarez, the incumbent, was overwhelmingly fired on March 15 losing by 30 percent.
Millennials have proven time and again that we have real political power and that we will flex it. But our power is diluted when we do not vote and further diluted when we protest vote for candidates that cannot win. Democracy takes a lot of work, and contrary to what many of us have been taught, it simply does not end when we vote. Instead, we must vote for candidates that closest align to what we want, negotiate to move elected officials closer to our agenda, hold them accountable once we have elected them to office, and fire them if they do not make enough progress before their name appears back on the ballot.