The midterm elections are fast approaching, so it’s time to throw rocks at kids.
In the weeks approaching Election Day, it is not uncommon for politicians to take young voters for granted, raise alarms about low voter turnout among the youth, or jump start tenuous efforts to energize the disillusioned and discontent Millennial and Gen Z voters. But is the youth vote really that important to politicians? Is it even worth the focus that it draws?
We are blamed for letting down a system built to let us down. This blame is often terribly short-sighted, as youth voting tends to follow trends of the general turnout. Getting young people to the polls is a question about getting everyone to the polls in larger numbers. In countries where the overall turnout is high, youth turnout is comparatively high.
Voting is, in much of the country, inaccessible and inconvenient (Election Day is on a Tuesday). Logistical and structural barriers, efforts at voter suppression and a lack of clear information about the voting process disproportionately impede young people to cast their ballots. To build good voting practices, it is necessary to improve the measures that govern electoral participation.
The focus on youth voting is a useful scapegoat to look away from the routine failure of candidates to adequately articulate their understanding of young voters’ concerns, or build a platform that includes them. The meager 5% of 18-to-29-year-olds who strongly approve of the way President Joe Biden is handling his role is painfully indicative of Biden’s lack of concern for the issues young voters prioritize.
It seems like youth votes are important enough to blame for losses, but not important enough to take seriously in policy. Our legislators neglect to make long term investments in health care access and affordability, racial inequality, housing issues and climate change, which are all top issues among youth voters.
I find it difficult to believe that my representatives will fight for my interests or can relate to today’s most pressing social issues. The current generation of young people is more diverse than any other American demographic. Not only do young voters tend to be more racially diverse and more democratic, but their daily, lived experiences are also very different from those who have been in office for decades.
The bedrock institutions of our democracy are led by people often three times my age, who came to political office at a time very different from the present. My senator has held her seat for five years longer than I’ve been alive. This means that Sen. Dianne Feinstein was in office before Snoop Dogg released Doggystyle and before anyone had ever seen Microsoft’s “Bliss” wallpaper of those iconic green hills and cloudy blue sky.
This isn’t to disparage Feinstein’s decades of service to California, but to ask how appropriate her leadership is in an economy and society that has been completely transformed since she first took office. Younger progressives are paving the way for a younger and more diverse Congress, and the chamber is poised to grow more diverse this November. Still, the vast majority of our leaders tend to hold onto their seats for decades, using party support to suppress the rise of younger candidates who could step up to fill their seats.
Perhaps young voters are tired of drawing the Democrats’ ire any time an election is closer than it should be or, god forbid, when their transparently horrible strategy finds them on the losing side of a winnable race.
The reality is that — for as “disillusioned” as I may be — I still vote. In a very real sense, my vote among millions of others will help to decide who will take office and which proposed laws will take effect. In and of itself, my vote will not fundamentally change the social and material conditions of my life. It might fail to energize my elected officials to act for my interests, and it is unlikely that my vote will have a direct effect on public policy. These circumstances are bleak, but not hopeless. If anything, the significance of voting lies somewhere else, in the thought process through which political ideas are produced, refined and reconsidered.
I vote to think. I think critically about where we are, how we got here and how we might achieve social change. Voting requires me to expose myself to the broader conversations, debates and controversies surrounding ballot initiatives and policy changes. Some of the most meaningful and heated political conversations I’ve ever had were sparked during the weeks approaching elections, between friends, family or community members. And these conversations are never easy to have. I’ve noticed that my understanding of a given issue is always clearer in my head than when I am describing it to someone else.
Later on, though, those moments help refine and revise my own distinctive stance on the contents of the ballot. They help me become aware of diverse perspectives on issues and force me to acknowledge limitations in my current point of view. The act and practice of voting involves the votes cast as well as the many, small acts informing and leading up to the decisions made.
More can be done to empower young people to vote, but it need not consist of crudely optimistic visions for the future. It is possible for young people to simultaneously feel disillusioned with the political process and still vote to express their views. In fact, disillusionment is an appropriate tone for an active, well-informed electorate who holds its government accountable to do better.