This year, hundreds of political offices will be up for grabs. In cities, states, and municipalities across the county, voters will cast ballots in special elections (close to 50 in total) and for statewide ballot measures (as many as 200 nationwide), in addition to choosing a candidate for the 435 House seats and 33 Senate seats during November midterms. Voters in close to 40 states and territories will be tasked with electing a governor.
But if those elections are anything like those which have occurred this year — like Wisconsin’s special election, wherein a district that voted for Donald Trump selected a Democratic candidate — pundits and pollsters can expect a relatively small amount of data to work with. Voter turnout in non-Presidential years is notoriously low and, despite the rhetoric of #Resistance, actually getting protesters to turn into poll-goers has been a tough task.
Young people, you might have heard, don’t vote.
Those looking for a simple way to explain a turnout of less than 25% in a critical January election often blame voter apathy — specifically among young people.
But then how do you explain this week’s surge of activity by young people across the country, demanding action and confronting politicians whose coffers are stuffed with money from organizations like the NRA?
The persistent narrative—that young people don’t vote because they just DGAF—plays out after every election, special or otherwise. The wringing of hands over the perceived lack of enthusiasm for voting demonstrated by Millennials and the generation after them (maybe it’s called Generation Z, but no one can come to a consensus on that yet) is a kind of constant din.
These oracles were proven incorrect; a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data found that Millennials and the famously disaffected, often-overlooked Gen-Xers outvoted Boomers in 2016. A record 34 million Millennials cast ballots, up from 18.4 million in 2008. It was the first time voters under 50 were the largest group engaged in the democratic process.
However, in 2016, just 50% of voters ages 18–29 turned out, compared to 52% in 2008.
Maybe young people just don’t care. But it could just as well be that, during the 2016 election, many young people struggled to even get to the polls — and once they were there, they may have faced additional barriers. Because, though it’s rarely parsed this way, many of the same laws that have created difficulty for older adult voters also disproportionately impact younger adults, too.
Millennials and Systemic Barriers to Voting
As a generation, Millennials live at more intersections — race, gender, and class, just to name a few — than any previous age cohort. They’re more diverse, they’re more fluid in their identity, and they’re more economically strapped, despite higher levels of education. Which is to say, Millennials are marginalized in more ways than one. And in the United States, being marginalized means being disenfranchised.
It may not be simply that young people don’t like to vote, or are too cynical to vote, but that they can’t vote, or are being kept from voting.
Nearly a century after the passage of the 19th amendment and more than 50 years after the 24th was ratified, voting rights remain under siege. Gerrymandering, voter ID laws, “purging” of the rolls, and the unfounded but pervasive idea that somehow voter fraud perpetrated by immigrants and the deceased have demonstrated their impact in the recent past, and continue to loom over the midterms and the 2020 Presidential election.
This isn’t theoretical; there are copious examples to look to for evidence. Voter suppression is often, correctly, viewed through a racial or class-based lens — however, these same laws also target younger people. A group that tends to vote more often for third-party and Democratic candidates.
For example, states such as Texas and Ohio require voter identification at the polling place — a college or university ID doesn’t qualify. In Wisconsin, voter ID laws permitted college IDs but not out-of-state drivers licenses, which, local news reported, resulted in many university students getting turned away in the April 2016 primary. In North Carolina, another key state in the Electoral College, hundreds of students cast provisional ballots in 2016, unsure whether their vote would even count because of their strict voter ID laws — which were struck down this year by the Supreme Court, but not before disenfranchising potentially thousands of American citizens.
There were also hundreds of fewer polling places in states like Texas, making it difficult to get to the polls at all.
Fewer polling places means less access, especially for those individuals who don’t drive or who are on tight schedules, balancing work, school, and family. It means longer lines; in November of 2016, the University of Texas had two polling places on campus, but the wait was so long that students admitted to skipping classes to cast a ballot, or skipping voting because they had to get to class.
Complicating the situation, Millennials are also less likely to own a car than previous generations, which can make accessing polling even more difficult.
The swell of voter ID laws and other attempts to suppress the vote (or secure it, depending on which side of the political divide you find yourself) are the direct result of a 2013 decision by the Supreme Court which allowed states more control over their own local voting rules and weakened Federal oversight. As a result, residents of different states may have very different experienced when it comes to voting.
And while many people view Millennials and Generation Z as more likely to move for jobs or school, the fact is that the economic lockup that folks under 35 are experiencing has made it more difficult to get away from restrictive laws. Like so many other factors of Millennial work, life, and economics, they are at the mercy of an older generation who has built a structure that keeps them on the fringes.
Voter suppression is particularly pernicious because it’s being conducted by a variety of organizations, individuals, and well-funded groups.
For example, the President’s “sham voting” commission, which was quickly disbanded (in part because it was unable to actually find any evidence of sham voting) included exclusively powerful men with backing from special interest groups, like the National Rifle Association. Members included John Lott Jr., whose largely discredited book on guns and crime is still considered highly important by gun lobbyists, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from the NRA in his various races. In fact, lawmakers with perfect NRA grades are also extremely likely to be the same ones—like Rick Scott and Marco Rubio—who supporting means to suppress the vote.
Which means the current conversation—about young people, guns, and political engagement—is necessarily linked. Because these same students who are standing bravely in the faces of elected officials and “calling BS” are the ones who will cast their first Presidential ballots in 2020.
That is, assuming they go to college in their own state, have the time, and don’t get stopped at the polls for any number of reasons.
Voter disenfranchisement and the continued attacks on voting rights and access aren’t typically couched as a youth or Millennial issue — but if we’re really serious about empowering teens and inspiring the next generation of political leaders, they should be.