Chants of “Resist!” “Not my president!” and other hashtag-able phrases have filled American city streets for nearly two years, and political energy among millennials and the upcoming generation appears greater than ever. The 2017 state and local races saw millennial participation at all-time highs.
Yet even with this newfound fervor, young voters still made up less than half the electorate. Similarly, in 2016, millennial voter turnout increased since 2014, but still, not quite half of millennials voted. However, millennials are not to be singled out, for the United States has historically— and still does— have one of the lowest voting rates in the world. The polarizing nature of recent elections shot voting numbers to record highs, but we still fall behind. Among black voters, voting actually declined in the 2016 election.
Voter suppression is widely accepted explanation for the disconnect between “Hashtag resist!” and actual voting. The ACLU blames voter ID laws for low turnout among younger and minority votes. Democrats also blame cutting early voting or voting times that inconvenience students and the working class. Convicted felons are the only adult citizens legally banned from voting in this century. Yet liberals argue felon voting suppression is racist because black men are more likely to be convicted of felony drug charges.
The struggle for suffrage defined much of early American history— non-landowning white men, black men, women, and 18-20-year-olds all had to fight for the right to vote. But with universal— except for felons —voting rights explicitly written into the Bill of Rights; with early voting allowed in a majority of states; with Jim Crow laws abolished—“voter suppression” sounds a tad melodramatic.
Certainly one could make a strong case low voter turnout reflects poorly on society. If government truly infringes rights of citizens based on race, poverty, gender, etc., this infringement is morally wrong. If the establishment has truly failed society, low voter turnouts mean our society and political systems will never improve.
But voter identification laws are only a part of the problem— the bigger issue is a lingering apathy and sense of political helplessness. To eradicate barriers to voting, we need to look beyond writing new policies and into more deeply-rooted societal and psychological factors.
Voter ID Laws— Jim Crow 2.0?
In 34 states, voting requires a valid form of identification. However, only seven of these states have strict voter ID laws— meaning in the remaining states may make an exception for a voter without a valid form of identification— for example he or she may sign an affidavit or provide proof of identity without a photo. Though this requirement appears mere common sense, like identification to purchase alcohol or background checks to purchase guns, Democrats contend it is a Republican conspiracy to suppress minority and low-income voters.
The claim is not just from pundits– research has suggested correlation between stricter voter ID laws and low minority turnout. To ignore this evidence completely would be remiss. However, the evidence is uneven– identification requirements did not negatively affect voter turnout in North Carolina’s 2014 midterms. And in 2016, Democrats lost key swing states even when no new voting identification laws had been passed. An analysis of voter identification laws in Georgia found voter ID laws negatively affected turnout, but did not disproportionately affect minority voters.
Another study found low impact on voter suppression based on voter ID laws— but suggests that Democrats use anger at so-called suppression tactics to mobilize voters, thereby boosting turnout. Note the boosts come from socialization— getting in the voters’ heads, convincing them they need to go fight the enemies’ suppression tactics— not from rewriting the policies themselves.
“Voting is easier…. Than almost any time in American history,” David Becker, Center for Election Innovation and Research director, told the New York Times in a 2017 article.
For every barrier to voting, two laws making voting easier appear to be enacted. Despite two-thirds of the states requiring some form of valid photo identification to vote, voting is hardly rocket science— certainly registering to vote has never been easier in America. Automatic voter registration is proliferating, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Facebook increased online voter registrations to all-time highs in 2016. The “Motor Voter” Act of 1993 required states to give anyone applying for a drivers’ license in that state the chance to register to vote—12 states have taken it a step further and automatically register drivers’ license applicants to vote.
College students in any state may choose to register to vote at on-campus addresses, rather than travelling home to vote. On-campus voter registration drives are increasingly common— and the 2016 election did spur unprecedented civic engagement from college students.
Voting is Easy
Once registered, voting is a simple process—and not limited to a specific time and place. The United States, unlike many democracies, does not have a federal voting holiday. Being “too busy” was one of the more common reasons for not voting in 2016. Democrats have proposed federal voting holidays would help working-class voters. Poll locations also hurt turnout, according to a 2016 MIT study.
The issue is voting isn’t actually restricted to a specific time and place. All 50 states allow absentee voting. Nearly all states allow early voting, and a few of them allow voters to change their minds if new information comes out before the election. For college students, perhaps unfamiliar with where to vote, transportation to the polls is sometimes provided. And eliminating barriers to voting doesn’t necessarily increase turnout. The same MIT study finding a relationship between voter turnout and poll location found location had little impact on turnout in the 2012 presidential election.
Ignorance is Bliss
Social media campaigns and political energy, as previously mentioned, drove up voting turnout in 2016. But the truth of the matter is, not everyone knows or cares enough to vote.
Distaste for both presidential candidates was the major reason people didn’t vote in the national election in 2016. But people staying home because they hated both presidential candidates reflects a major failure of the U.S.’s public education system—the myth of the executive as the be all and end all of the government.
A 2015 survey found fewer than 25 percent of millennials knew their state representatives. Even fewer African-Americans and Latinos could name their state representatives. However, singling out millennials is uncharitable, for another survey of Americans in general found fewer than half of participants could name their state representatives. Of survey participants, 14 percent (!) believed they did not even have the opportunity to elect a representative when they voted.
Rousseau and Warren write, “Whereas previous generations often took as many as three government courses before graduating from high school, students today often take one semester, if any. Educators are not taught how to teach civics education effectively, and resources from the federal government, states, and districts alike are sparse on the topic.”
Schools are the most important agent of socialization besides family, and they’re failing to teach even a basic knowledge of state and local politics. Discouraged from “forcing opinions on students,” some teachers may choose to sidestep controversial hot topics altogether. They create an atmosphere not conducive to developing critical thinking skills or political interest and efficacy.
But striving for neutrality is not the main issue. The real issue is tests emphasizing math and English, so schools emphasize math and English, not social studies. Political education is in pretty sorry shape, and does little to explain federal government much less state and local issues. Even in American History and government, teachers only have so many days to cover the major national issues which will be on the tests. So they don’t delve into state and local politics. And students leave school with little to no knowledge of government branches most directly affecting day-to-day life. They leave school with this unrealistic image of the executive branch synonymous with the entire government. So when the choices for executive are undesirable, citizens simply stay home.
And—as everyone who went to school knows—many students simply don’t care about subjects on which they aren’t being tested. States like Florida which have introduced civic tests have seen increased civic interest and participation from young people.
Media is another primary agent of socialization, but it does little to inform voters of state and local issues. Strong correlation exists between keeping up with local news and local democratic participation, unsurprisingly. But the fact is most people just don’t follow local news anymore. Young people are even less likely to keep up with local news, according to PEW Research.
And how much good would reading the local weekly really do voters? Local outlets focus more on national issues than their own issues. Especially in noncompetitive districts, city and state races just aren’t sexy enough for extensive coverage.
Trust in media in general is very low, and trust in local news media is only at 22 percent. This statistic is slightly better than the level of trust in national media. But it does little to inspire confidence that local newspapers can encourage citizens to pay attention to local and state politics.
With schools and media pushing a president-centric view of government, no wonder midterm and local election turnout— where votes actually count for more— is historically always lower than presidential election turnout, especially for millennials.
It’s Cooler to Care Now
Parks and Recreation’s April Ludgate embodies the millennial stereotype–a young person who doesn’t do her job at a government office because she just doesn’t care about anything, much less politics. April’s sass and bluntness endear her to the audience, but she does reinforce the idea young people don’t vote because they are just too cool to care.
Perusing social media over the last couple of years reveals that millennials are becoming a little more politically engaged, and as Generation Z comes of age, they appear ready to “fight back.” In other words, not caring isn’t cool anymore. If young people still aren’t voting in any elections at quite the rate their parents and grandparents are, it’s not laziness or apathy. Rather, it’s political normlessness ingrained in them from a very young age.
Rational voter theory says people don’t vote because the cost outweighs the benefits. We assume our vote “doesn’t count.” So we don’t take the time to do it, unless we just really want to support a candidate. As previously mentioned, many young people aren’t informed enough to get involved in local politics where their votes carry significant weight. Socialized to see the president as America’s savior, disgusted and disillusioned with the current president, and unaware they should be voting in down-ballot races— no wonder young people feel politically helpless and frustrated.
But some younger people are still more likely to vote (in any election, not just down-ballot races) than others. Democrats are correct that systemic racism and classism plays a role in who votes. Black voter turnout fell dramatically in 2016 compared to 2008 and 2012. White youth in rural areas—what one writer calls “civic deserts” are much more likely to feel politically alienated. Young people in rural areas were slightly less likely than their urban, better-educated, wealthier counterparts in 2016.
But voter ID laws are not the problem. The problem is a long, deeply rooted socialization process that instills political efficacy in some people and political normlessness and helplessness in others.
Minority and low-income students statistically receive a poorer quality of political education and perform worse on standardized civics assessments than their wealthy caucasian counterparts. So these kids feel too uninformed to vote. Furthermore, both parties have failed to really engage and mobilize African-American and Hispanic voters. Democrats in 2016 lost momentum in connecting with minority constituents, so African-Americans elected to stay home.
Calling young or black or Hispanic voters “lazy” ridiculously oversimplifies the impact of poor civic education. Until every child, regardless of socioeconomic status, is bred to believe he or she can make a difference by voting, voter turnout among lower classes will remain low.
And though political alienation may be higher among minorities and poor whites, disenchantment with both parties is proliferating among Americans in general. The last national election cycle featured literally the two most unpopular candidates… ever. Caring about voting is difficult when you feel both parties have failed you and no viable third-party option is in sight.
If Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, the poor, the youth—anyone who’s socially disadvantaged–cannot vote, then America has failed to live up to its liberal ideals. “Making it easier for them to vote” is a nice idea. But if we truly want more civic engagement and thriving democratic-republican government, the issue is much deeper than voter ID laws. We need to re-establish a certain level of trust in government by nominating more ethical people. We need citizens who are fully informed and participating at every level of government, not just voting for president. Most importantly, we need to totally revamp political education and socialization so every child graduates high school with no apathy or ignorance about civic engagement.