Youth at the Polls: The Big If

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By Robert Weiner and Christina McDowell

On Nov. 6, 2018, all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate will be up for reelection. Democrats might have a shot at flipping Congress — if they get youth to the polls.

According to Pew Research Center, millennials have surpassed the baby boomers as America’s largest generation: 75.4 million to 74.9 million. By 2018, every millennial will be above the legal voting age; as the number of deaths among boomers grows, millennials have the potential to rock Congress in the midterm elections.

However, millennials between the ages of 18 and 34 have the lowest voter turnout of any age group. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reported that only 50 percent cast ballots in the 2016 general election. During midterms, as with other age groups, turnout is even worse; only 21.3 percent voted in 2014.

Not since the Vietnam War has America’s youth turned out to vote in numbers higher than 51 percent. In 1972, during the war, the youth vote reached a peak of 55 percent, mainly due to the draft and to widespread opposition to the war.

Believed to be the least sexist, racist, xenophobic or homophobic generation, the millennials are also the first generation of Americans without a virtual guarantee of a life more abundant than their parents’. What they know instead are financial crashes, Wall Street bailouts, student debt and big money in politics, culminating in a deep mistrust of government.

So have millennials given up hope?

During the primary, many caught the “Bernie or Bust” wave. A 2016 national exit poll by the Center for Information and Civic Learning says that more youth in 2016 either supported a third-party candidate or simply did not vote for a president, throwing the election to Trump in the close states that made the electoral-college difference.

If millennials don’t step up to the plate for the midterm elections come 2018, their attitudes will be disrupted by the reality of a right-wing Congress passing legislation.

Candidates need to connect with young people, reaching out on college campuses and engaging on social media. This proved successful for Barack Obama, who hired street artist and activist Shepard Fairey, also known among the skateboarding scene, to create the famous “Hope” poster for the 2008 election.

Almost a decade later, Hillary Clinton was late to campuses and social media, and never gave a charismatic speech empowering young people. Donald Trump, however, uses Twitter as a powerful tool to engage with his voters.

In a youth culture obsessed with celebrity and image, candidates need a charismatic speech about issues young people care about, 140 characters and a filtered photograph. The future of democracy depends on it.

Robert Weiner was director of youth voter registration for National Young Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign. A Georgetown University student, Christina McDowell is policy analyst for Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change.

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