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The Most Powerful New Voting Bloc in America Doesn’t Vote

Young people have the power to dominate U.S. policy, but they’ve been sidelined for years. Will they vote in November? It depends.

Art: Maria Chimishkyan

An enormous voting bloc is about to come of age.

By 2020, 27 percent of the U.S. electorate — some 54 million people — will be between the ages of 18 and 29. This group, comprising the trailing edge of millennials and the first crop of voting-age Gen Zers, represented less than 20 percent of the voting population in the 2016 election. They’re now gaining the electoral muscle to determine the course of U.S. policy for decades to come.

That future should be progressive. In poll after poll, these voters lean far left of their elders. The bulk of them have registered unaffiliated or Democrat, but regardless of their declared party, they tend toward liberal on every major issue — including immigration, the environment, and gun control, according to a 2018 study by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard University, and they overwhelmingly disapprove of President Trump.

There’s just one problem: They don’t vote. In the 2014 midterms, a miserable 12 percent of eligible 18-to-21-year-old college and university students participated in the election. In 2016, with a highly controversial presidency at stake, less than half of college undergraduates voted.

With the chance to flip the House this November, hope has bloomed that these voters — let’s call them MillZees — will finally turn out. But while some analysts expect an onslaught at the polls this fall, the reality is far less certain. In discussions with get-out-the-vote advocates, voting experts, political analysts, and MillZees themselves, I discovered a vast chasm between the vibrant voter-registration movement and the number of candidates who actually connect with younger Americans enough to inspire them to pull a lever. And I learned that while youth voters sincerely want change, they are at once cynical, overwhelmed, and remarkably ill-informed about how the government operates.

In 2014, 26 percent of eighth-graders scored “below basic” on the civics part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card.

But most of all, I found this: It’s not their fault.

Instead, it’s the product of a decades-long sequence of events — some deliberately engineered to freeze out the youth vote, others the unintended consequence of well-meaning but misguided social and educational programs — which has resulted in some 54 million young American citizens forfeiting even the slightest inclination to participate in American democracy. How do we get them back? The answer is complicated.

Seen, Not Heard

The disenfranchisement of young people from U.S. politics started decades ago.

Social and political unrest in the 1960s rattled Americans’ faith in their government. That distrust spawned an educational movement that ditched basic civics classes for the more nebulous “social studies,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Those old-school government lessons — the kind that taught young Americans the mechanics of their political system — were replaced by history-focused coursework.

On the left, the movement was seen as a way to start fresh by teaching a broader range of ideas and contexts. On the right, the movement seemed like a great way to remove any whiff of liberal partisanship from public schools. Whatever the goal, civics education has declined ever since — its slide accelerating when George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002 without a mandate to test for civics knowledge. In 2014, just 22 percent of eighth-graders scored “proficient” on the civics part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card. That same year, 26 percent of students scored “below basic.”

During that period, American politics have also become intensely polarized. Any political discussion in school is viewed with deep suspicion by parents, administrators, and politicians who are obsessed with stealth ideologues who might be influencing children’s political beliefs. The result is that students no longer have a moderated, safe space where they can explore political issues, and teachers are afraid to address thorny issues. Emily O’Hara, a junior at UConn Storrs, says that in her high school civics class, the teacher would change the subject when discussions got too contentious.

That comes as no surprise to Kawashima-Ginsberg. Her 2012 survey of 800 civics teachers across the country found that more than 25 percent reported they dreaded community pushback if they talked about current events in the classroom. Many of these teachers got their first taste of this new order after having their students watch President Obama’s 2008 inauguration in the classroom — only to find themselves subjected to irate phone calls and threats of lawsuits from parents who claimed that the act of witnessing the transfer of power to a Democratic president in school was partisan.

Young voters’ lack of access to information about issues and candidates keeps them from casting votes. “We don’t read,” says one.

Since then, parents across the country have become ever more adamant that their public school teachers avoid talking about current elections and political issues. Kawashima-Ginsberg says that during the 2016 election, fearing virulent backlash, civics teachers across the country reported that they avoided discussing current events entirely. “There’s a real fear in schools to talk about politics,” she says. “Teachers are disempowered, and we are not testing for civic fluency, so they have no incentive to teach it.”

Those same high school students will soon be eligible to register as voters. For the first time, they will be confronted with political choices that will directly affect them. Lacking the necessary tools to understand and debate issues, and without an even basic understanding of how government works, they’re falling hopelessly behind.

“We Don’t Read”

“Rock the Vote” has come to sound like something your dad did while wearing plaid flannel in the ’90s, so the get-out-the-vote (GOTV) movement is trying a reboot. Idealistic, earnest, and at least superficially hip, new nonprofit/nonpartisan GOTV organizations abound. They’re firmly rooted on college campuses, sending out packs of cheerful undergrads to knock on dorm room doors, testify in classrooms, and staff tables around the quad. The Parkland survivors even caravanned across the country to get their fellow young Americans registered. This summer, voter registration booths also popped up at festivals like Pitchfork, Coachella, Bonnaroo — anywhere twentysomethings were known to gather.

One of these young activists is Karl Catarata. A junior at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he spent his spring semester registering classmates on a campus just 1.3 miles from where a gunman murdered 58 people last October. Catarata is motivated by a lot of things — especially gun control — though he’s not allowed to engage potential voters on specific issues, as GOTV organizations are emphatically nonpartisan. This makes an already hard sell even harder.

Catarata says that a lot of his fellow students don’t register because they’re suspicious: “They’re worried they’ll get jury duty, or their information will be shared, or someone will steal their Social Security number,” he says. Many classmates claim to be too busy to pay attention, or they’re wary of the process, or they’re just too far behind to catch up. “A few people have said that the system is rigged against them.”

With all the energy around getting kids registered, their lack of access to information about issues and candidates keeps them from casting votes. MillZees are just as distrustful of the media as their fellow Americans (according to a 2018 Knight Foundation poll, 66 percent of Americans say the news media does a poor job of separating fact from opinion). They depend heavily on social media for news — Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook — but don’t know how to ferret out trustworthy intel about their government, candidates, and issues. And wherever they get information, they typically don’t go beyond headlines. “We don’t read,” admits Sam Davis, a sophomore and chemical engineering major at UMass Amherst.

It’s true: MillZees don’t read. Much. Even though Catarata at UNLV is politically active and planning to vote, even he usually just scans headlines. “I’ll scroll through the news on Twitter, see what’s hot. If someone on Facebook posts an article, I’ll read it.” In general, Catarata says, he and his peers are too busy to follow what’s happening.

Kyle Clauss, a New Jersey native and graduate student at Vermont Law School, gets much of his information from podcasts, including Pod Save America, The Dig, and Intercepted, while driving or doing the dishes. Although he was formerly in journalism, he’s wary of mainstream sources: “It’s tough because the whole fake news thing has opened a Pandora’s box. Even legacy publications like the New York Times don’t always get it right,” Clauss says. “There’s no purely good source.”

Like other MillZees, Kyleigh Hillerud, a sophomore at UConn Storrs who’s voting by absentee ballot in New York this November, reads headlines on Twitter and Facebook, but says, “There’s only so much you can get from them,” which is why she seeks out a variety of competing news sources, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, CNN, and Fox News to try to get at the truth of the matter. “My father taught me to do that,” Hillerud says. She admits that she’s unusual: “I know very few people who do what I do — my friends in upstate New York might read a headline but they don’t dig into it.”

While they may not read, MillZees are refreshingly self-aware about their current condition: “We complain, but we don’t vote. We don’t feel empowered. We’re easily distracted and unsure about how to make ourselves heard,” says Davis, who is registered in his home state of Connecticut but had no plans to vote until we talked about it in early August. He’d never heard of the absentee ballot until I mentioned it. “There are issues we care a lot about, but we’re confused about how we can change things.”

The Candidate Problem

Even if voting advocates could get past MillZees’ cynicism, apathy, and civic ignorance, come November, they’re up against an even bigger problem: the candidates themselves.

On a hot August day in Chicago, Kenan, the UMass Amherst undergrad, checked out his gubernatorial candidates’ websites. The two contenders are ultra-wealthy white men — Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker — already a turnoff for young voters. Together they’ve been spending $300,000 a day on their campaigns, but their websites felt canned. The candidates have invested heavily in traditional media, which twentysomethings, including Kenan, don’t watch. And both candidates focus on the same issues, few of which resonated with him. Rauner, the incumbent Republican, preaches the gospel of low taxes, which invokes eye rolls.

Many analysts use social media stats as an indicator for youth support, and while Rauner has 2,800 Instagram followers and 29,000 Twitter followers, he has abysmal engagement on both platforms, which made Kenan suspect that the followers were fake. Pritzker, the Democratic challenger running on an anti-Trump platform, has fewer than 3,400 Instagram followers, and his 26,000 Twitter followers are equally disengaged. Fake again? The research felt too much like work. After five minutes of poking around, Kenan gave up. There was more interesting stuff to look at out there.

Young voters stay home because the candidates aren’t representing their interests, and the winning candidates ignore them when they get into office, opting to instead push the agenda of the older voters who elected them.

With all the talk of the historic number of women and minority candidates making bids for elected office this fall, most contests remain white guy vs. white guy affairs, which draw scant MillZee (and internet) interest. Nineteen of the 35 gubernatorial races and 189 of the House races are exclusively white-man showdowns. Same with 15 of the 35 Senate races (the balance includes white women). In their photos and on their formulaic websites, the candidates look remarkably similar. To distinguish them, you need a nuanced approach — the kind you get from media literacy and background knowledge, which MillZees don’t have, and reading, which they don’t do.

But it’s more than that. By and large, these candidates don’t address the issues that most directly affect MillZee voters. Three-quarters of MillZees say that gun control is their most important issue in the upcoming election, according to the IOP survey, but most candidates, fearing NRA backlash, won’t touch that one. Nearly half of millennials on a Pew survey say they can’t afford routine health care costs and see universal health care as the solution. The bulk of politicians talk around health care — offering up every flavor of public-private solution imaginable — but rare is the candidate who embraces a single-payer system. Millennial and Gen Z parents and students hold an estimated $1.2 trillion in education debt, but good luck finding a lawmaker who will stump on tackling that. Indeed, the 2018 GOP tax plan eliminated many income tax deductions that MillZees and their parents benefited from, including student loan interest, mortgage interest, and grants and scholarships. “We cannot get leaders to care about us,” says Emily O’Hara, a junior at UConn Storrs and ardent voting advocate.

It’s not entirely the leaders’ fault. MillZees are practically unreachable via mainstream campaign methods, so many a political manager advises his or her clients to skip them. The candidates do. Young voters stay home because the candidates aren’t representing their interests, and the winning candidates ignore them when they get into office, opting to instead push the agenda of the older voters who elected them. The cynicism deepens, apathy ensues, more neglect follows. It’s a vicious circle.

The Authenticity Thing

The thing is, MillZees will vote. But only under specific circumstances.

They’ve been marketed, messaged, and data-mined to death, so they bristle at anything that feels inauthentic. Painful backstories and straight talk, the currency of YouTubers and celebrities alike, will always resonate more than polished performances.

Two things will drive youth voters to the polls: identity and, if that isn’t in play, authenticity. Identity functions as a kind of shorthand for connection or realness. A compelling backstory coupled with racial and gender otherness — a “lived experience” — is MillZee political gold. Easy to capture in just a few words, identity slices through the internet noise and can’t be faked. (Or one would think. Julia Salazar, a progressive social Democrat running for state Senate in New York, has been accused of fabricating certain biographical details, including where she was born, to appear more disadvantaged. Regardless, the youth voters seem to be standing by her, for now.)

This year, campaigns with a lived-experience theme are proven winners. You couldn’t cook up a better test for this hypothesis than Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District primary, where Ayanna Pressley, a 44-year-old black female Boston city counselor, challenged a progressive 66-year-old white male incumbent who’d held the seat for 19 years. Their politics were nearly identical, but Pressley’s identity as a black woman with a history of sexual abuse captivated younger voters. The day before the primary, Pressley boasted 37,500 engaged Twitter followers (Capuano had a fourth as many), along with 7,100 enthusiastic Instagram followers (her opponent wasn’t on IG). Pressley won with 59 percent of the vote, and, with no Republican opponent, she’s heading to D.C.

Authentic messaging works across the political spectrum.

In the Georgia Democratic primary, Stacey Abrams, the black female candidate for governor, trounced her white female opponent by a huge margin: 300,000 votes. Her top issue is health care. Abrams has 118,000 Twitter followers ready to mobilize against her conservative white male opponent this November. And in Florida, black gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum bucked conventional wisdom when he triumphed over former congresswoman Gwen Graham, who is white, in the Democratic primary. Gillum is unquestionably progressive and speaks the MillZee language. The simple tweet, “We should pay teachers what they are worth. And with your help, we will,” drew 48,000 likes in just 16 hours.

Combine those optics with Bernie Sanders’ youth agenda and you’ve bottled lightning. Following the Vermont senator’s road map is first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old MillZee of Puerto Rican heritage who beat a powerful white male incumbent in New York’s congressional primary in great part because she championed the MillZee platform, which includes the elimination of government-held student loans and zero tuition at public colleges. Ocasio-Cortez’s straightforward approach passes the MillZee authenticity test, while her skillful use of social media (she’s a native user, after all) has drawn national attention and nearly a million Twitter followers.

A few white male candidates have successfully tapped into the MillZee quest for authenticity as well. In Texas, youthful Beto O’Rourke, a progressive Democratic congressman running against Ted Cruz, may look like the hated patriarchy (down to his $7 million personal net worth), but he’s pro-choice, pro–gun control, and left-leaning on immigration. He also knows how to sound real. His one-minute low-fi iPhone video campaign ad, “Showing Up,” which captures O’Rourke pounding the pavement and shaking hands throughout Texas, has racked up more than 300,000 views on YouTube, and the comments section is open, inviting haters and lovers alike. The candidate boasts 461,000 Twitter followers, and his tweets consistently garner several thousand likes. Accordingly, O’Rourke grabbed 62 percent of the votes in the Democratic primary. There’s little doubt that young voters will come out to support him this fall.

Authentic messaging works across the political spectrum. Some conservative lawmakers’ straight-talk stylings pass the MillZee test, and they’re reaping the rewards as well. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s no-bullshit attitude has been known to resonate with youth voters (116,000 engaged Twitter followers), even if his politics don’t (he earns a Trump score of 86.7 percent on FiveThirtyEight). “He’s relatively young and talks a good line while backing very conservative policies,” says Meredith Ferguson, the managing director of DoSomething Strategic who closely follows youth voter trends. In Sasse’s recent book, Ferguson says, he “called millennials ‘needy, undisciplined, coddled, presumptuous’ young people who lack ‘much of a filter between their public personas and their inner lives.’” She adds, “Not sure how well known that is among young voters.” Nevertheless, MillZees appreciate his frank and forthright attitude.

Another Republican who’s got the youth vote despite his deep-red politics: Will Hurd, of Texas’ 23rd District. A former CIA agent who, like Obama, has a white mother and black father, Hurd won his seat twice on razor-thin margins in a predominantly Hispanic district. He’s 40 years old, smart, and quiet, and he appears thoughtful on issues, especially the immigration question, which his constituents deeply care about. But ignore any progressive rhetoric: Hurd earned a whopping 95.6 percent Trump score on FiveThirtyEight. Bill Lee, running for governor in Tennessee, is another GOP straight-talking candidate attracting MillZee attention. Despite his homespun “Tennessee is my home, I’m with the folks” messaging, Lee’s about as anti-progressive as you can get.

Are there conservative MillZee voters? Of course. But based on the cohort’s pronounced leftward lean, these outliers suggest a vulnerability: a difficulty telling the difference between performance and substance — meaning that if you can figure out a way to connect to them, they might love you back, even if your politics will ultimately crush their dreams. They certainly wouldn’t be alone among American voters in that regard, but coupled with the apathy and civic illiteracy, it’s a troubling characteristic.

The Fight for (and Against) College Students

All of this year’s focus on youth voters has spooked Republicans who don’t want the MillZee agenda derailing GOP momentum. Their response, by and large, has been to move to make it as hard as possible for young people to vote.

Threatened by Gillum’s rising-star status in Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott’s administration tried to block early voting on college campuses. (A federal judge struck down the attempt.) As soon as Abrams won the Georgia gubernatorial primary, with a huge youth- and black-voter lead, the Republican administration tried to close dozens of majority-black polling places around the state. (It took media reporting and the ACLU to block the measure.) In New Hampshire, a new state law requires that registered voters obtain a state driver’s license within 60 days of voting and register their vehicles in the state. Voter advocates view this as a blatant attempt to get the collegiate carpetbaggers out of local politics.

In early August, in response to Beto O’Rourke and other progressive candidates running in Texas, a state commission proposed shuttering 87 Department of Public Safety driver’s license offices ahead of the election, under the guise that the sites were “inefficient.” If a panel of alert legislators hadn’t stopped the proposal, some Texans would have had to drive up to 100 additional miles in pursuit of a government-issued ID so they could represent this fall.

This year’s focus on youth voters has spooked Republicans. Their response, by and large, has been to move to make it as hard as possible for young people to vote.

Lawmakers are also doing their damnedest to keep political discourse off campuses—the places where many Americans experience their first civic awakening. Seven states have proposed or passed college campus “free-speech laws,” which, despite the name, actually strip universities of their independence. Tennessee’s Campus Free Protection Act, inspired by student protests against the likes of Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos, allows outside speakers to demand reparations from institutions if their events are canceled. Faculty neutrality laws under consideration in some states will make it more difficult for professors to speak freely about the government, issues, and those in power. The recent Tennessee law, for example, allows schools to punish faculty if their class content is “not reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class as broadly construed, and comprises a substantial portion of classroom instruction.” College and university administrators, fearful of defunding and fomenting political ire, have been reluctant to push back.

Still, there is momentum in the opposite direction, at least toward getting students some semblance of a civic education. In 2012, as the U.S. Department of Education challenged institutions to offer programs and experiences that would get the students more engaged in democracy, Nancy Thomas, the director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, initiated the most sweeping college voting study in the nation to equip institutions with reliable data on their students’ voting habits. Thomas’ National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) compares student enrollment records with students’ voting records (wiped of names and other identifying data) and publishes reports for each institution that opts in to the study. By 2018, more than 1,100 colleges and universities, representing 10.7 million students, had opted in.

The annual NSLVE report puts a school’s civic engagement stats in bold relief. On page three, after the cover page and introductory letter, is the school’s student-wide voting rate, printed big and bold like an SAT score. Next to this number is the percentage change since the last report was issued, as well as the voting rate that year for all participating institutions. Bates College, for example, had a voting rate in 2016 of 43.5 percent, up 1.9 percent from 2012. The average national voting rate across all participating schools was 50.4 percent. Bates could clearly see that it was underperforming relative to its peers.

Why do some institutions produce engaged students while others don’t? Thomas found that students who attend schools where they feel empowered by the administration to initiate change within their own communities are more likely to carry that power into the broader world.

Among the seven schools with exceptionally high voter turnout that Thomas studied this year, all offered classes specifically geared to helping first-year students learn how to discuss controversial topics. It’s a way to confront the “triggering” problem head-on. Four of the schools required that first-year students take classes that use actual current events to help them frame issues, identify different perspectives, and advocate for one side or the other. Armed with the tools they need, students come together to tackle complex problems and find solutions.

Which is, in a nutshell, how government should work. Should. But there are a lot of obstacles between where we are and where we could be, between potential and turnout. Back on the ground at UConn, GOTV volunteer O’Hara has had to overcome all of these larger forces to politically empower her generation. “People are so disconnected,” she says. “They feel they don’t have a voice or power to shape the future.” How does a young believer like O’Hara respond to that level of cynicism? “People want to be a part of something, and that’s how voting can make a difference. By showing up, we can shape our future.”

Boston-based journo and author of "Into the Raging Sea" (Ecco/HarperCollins 2018) about the 2015 sinking of the cargo ship El Faro.

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