While 48.5 percent leaves plenty of room for growth, the figure actually doesn’t reflect too poorly on our demographic cohort. In fact, since 1996 the voter participation rate in presidential elections for youth between the ages of 18 and 24 has been slowly increasing, gaining nearly 13 percentage points in the past 16 years. Further, while our cohort’s turnout was stronger in 2008 than it had been in 2004, the opposite was true for citizens age 30 and over. So, looking more closely at the CIRCLE data, I’d say we’re having no trouble finding our voice. Participation rates are growing, and — as additional research suggests — we have successfully gotten youth to buy into the idea that voting is good.
The tired admonition of youth voter participation is simply no longer valid, a feat our generation doesn’t get enough credit for. If there’s a trend out there that we really need to counter, it’s this belief that we aren’t active. I think the general electorate stands to gain a lot by better acknowledging the growing importance of youth voters.
In the same years we’ve perpetuated the notion that youth voters are lagging in voter turnout and thus do not constitute a politically significant cohort, the tenor of political debate has reached absurd levels of futility — pointing fingers, attacking identities and squabbling over personal documents.
While there are countless causes of this fall in the quality of our political conversations and leaders, it happens to relate to another piece of information put out by Tufts University, the home of CIRCLE. According to data collected in 2006 and 2007, millennials rather “dislike spin and polarized debate,” are “turned off by intensely combative political debate” and “discard much of the information available to them because of its polarizing and partisan nature.” If our politicians pandered to the millennials, rather than “trying to outdo one another in creating economic and social agendas that seniors will support,” as Tehila suggests, or worse operating in a world of mud slinging and sound bites, we might be able to bring back some sophistication and thoughtfulness to our national political stage.
So, when it comes to looking at voter turnout data, what’s more noteworthy to me is Gallup’s early summer poll regarding participant’s intention to vote in November. Compared to past election cycles, fewer young people, here grouped as 18-29 years old, have expressed an intention to vote. Given the number of articles and pundits I’ve seen calling out this campaign cycle for being more aggressive and less productive than those in the past, and my own intuition that the Tufts researchers have accurately identified characteristics of youth voters, this occurrence makes sense. If we’re turned off by the polarized style of campaigning we’ve been subjected to, and if there has been little attempt to engage us through substance, it seems to follow that our participation rate might truly drop for the first time since 1996.
If that does happen, let’s not allow this paradigm of Gen X versus Gen Y historical statistics to distract us from what has happened. Instead of adopting the crotchety “in my day” refrain, I offer these simple statistics to ask Gen X to take a different approach. Let’s not criticize the millennial for juvenile apathy. Let’s call attention to our broken political system that disenfranchised what was a mobilized and growing cohort of voters.
And if it doesn’t happen, if the percentage of youth voter turnout continues to increase, let’s call more attention to our political power. Let’s use the fact that our numbers are growing to assert the importance of our opinions and call for a serious change in how campaigns are run. If we truly value “authentic opportunities for discussing public issues,” as Tufts suggests we do, then let’s force campaigns to provide those opportunities.”
Lily Alberts is an economics major from Nashville, Tenn. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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