This post first appeared on BillMoyers.com.
To say the 2016 presidential election is full of surprises is an understatement, but the biggest surprise yet could be who turns out to be the kingmaker. In a race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that's so close even Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine is refusing to forecast the outcome, the deciding votes could be in the hands of millennials.
Americans age 18-32 are now the largest living generation. But to be the game changers of this election, millennials have to show up at the polls. A just-issued report by Common Cause highlights the problem:
In every election, young Americans arguably have more at stake than any other group of citizens, simply because they have longer to live with the choices we all make. But throughout our history, including in every election since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971, voter turnout among younger Americans has lagged well behind that in every other age group. Worse yet, with just a few exceptions, youth turnout has declined steadily.
It was considered a big deal when a bare majority of that age group — 51 percent — showed up at the polls for President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election. Four years later, slacker syndrome started to creep in: The percentage dropped to 45.
This year, however, the percentage of young voters showing up for the primaries was equal to or greater than in the 2008 nominating contests.
That's probably because, in the spring, a large percentage of millennials were “feeling the Bern.” But compared to Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent whose insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination ultimately failed, Trump and Clinton haven’t had the easiest time connecting with millennials — at least, judging by what some from New York City are saying.
“I think I’m going to be moving out of the country to be honest with you,” said Matthew Mateo, 19. He's not planning on participating in his first presidential election because he doesn’t like the leading candidates. “If Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton become president then I’m going to be moving out regardless.”
While Crystal Castillo, 24, is planning on voting, she's not too excited about her choices.
“I know I need to pick a lesser of two evils because either way it’s going to be picked for me,” she said.
So it seems that for some young voters, this election reminds them of one of their favorite TV shows, South Park, and the school mascot contest between a turd sandwich or a giant douche. But there are others, running the gamut from Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on the left to Eli Nachmany, recent past chairman of the College Republicans of New York, who beg to differ.
“Every election is not about four years, it’s about the next 40 years,” said Nachmany. “Because the policies that a president puts in place, the judge that a president appoints to the high courts — these are things that will affect us, and if we don’t have a say in the things that will affect us then essentially we’re kicking the can down the road and letting other people whose interests may not align with ours make those decisions for us.”
For a clearer example, just look across the pond. In June, in what was known as the Brexit vote, British citizens were asked to decide whether the United Kingdom should remain part of or break away from the European Union. Many young voters wanted the UK to remain, but a 52-48 percent vote in which there was a significant generation gap changed young citizens’ futures. That led to “Bregret” among some young voters who expressed surprise at what their votes had wrought.
Are millennials in the US aware of the similarly very high stakes this November?
Nachmany worries about his cohorts' lack of knowledge of the issues.
“Usually you’ll find that they don’t understand that the people they’re voting in are advocating for something that’s against their economic interest,” he said.
To counter this, the New York College Republicans offer an academic fellowship in which students write papers and publish research on policies the party and its candidates are tackling. This initiative gives college students the chance to explore whether the candidates for whom they advocate are pushing policies they can get behind.
Another opportunity Nachmany touts: the National Training and Simulation Association's annual Capitol Hill and Modeling & Simulation Expo, where electronic simulations are used to let users experience hypothetical situations that might confront law- and policymakers. "[It's] everything from simulating a response to a terror attack to help urban planning officials be more ready and prepared for that terror attack to performing a response to a natural disaster with just simple urban tools, and you can model that based on the resources available to you,” Nachmany said.
Thomas Palumbo, vice president of New York’s College Democrats, works on getting students more involved in political conversation by having them talk to candidates — focusing on those whose campaigns don't always get a lot of media attention.
“We always talk about how the president is so important — they are the most important politician in the country and obviously that’s true, but there usually isn’t that follow-up that ‘oh but for most of your taxes or your roads or where you live, you should really be voting for your town councilperson, your city councilperson, your state senator,’” said Palumbo. “There’s so many other elected officials who have more of an impact on people’s day-to-day lives [and] you never hear about those elections.”
Palumbo’s Fordham University chapter of College Democrats is close to District 15’s City Council office, where New York City Council member Ritchie Torres briefs students on the political scene.
At 28, Torres is the council's youngest member. He says he sees hope when it comes to millennials getting involved in politics.
“Millennials have a keen sense of what is ailing the world," Torres said. "And even though a millennial doesn’t know the details of every policy prescription, there is a general sense of what is ailing society and what we need to do to fix it.”
Knowing how to fix what's ailing the world means being informed, and young voters can suffer from an information gap: the lack of coverage of local elections in news media and lack of online resources in low-income communities. As a city council member for the Bronx, Torres is pinning his hopes on virtual democracy.
“Even though there are signs of civic decline in various parts of American life, I do see hope in social media and the ability of social media to empower the grass roots to the extent we never seen before,” he said.
Apathy and lack of information isn't all that's hindering young voters from coming out.
For one thing, Election Day occurs on an inconvenient weekday when many people are at work, and young people, being the lowest on the totem poll, are likely to have the hardest time getting off or having time to commute while at school to the nearest polling center.
For another, there are legal hurdles, made steeper, Common Cause reports, by "laws being advanced almost exclusively by Republican lawmakers."
For instance, students who go to school in a different state from where they live need to apply for an absentee ballot. That said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, whose research focuses on turnout issues. After registering to vote, the student then must fill out a request for an absentee ballot, send it to a designated state election official, wait for all the appropriate forms to get sent back, and then, finally cast a ballot.
Although students have the right to vote in their college towns, local officials have sometimes told them otherwise.
“That’s kind of troubling when the barriers are already steep for young people to engage, and then we’re adding additional burdens that make it even more difficult to engage in the process,” said McDonald.
According to McDonald's research for his United States Election Project, the habitual voter falls under a specific profile.
"They tend to be older people, they tend to be better-educated people, wealthier people, whiter people," he said. "Younger people don’t fit the profile of a habitual voter."
McDonald notes that young voters do better when they are in school.
“You’ll actually find that college students vote at rates that look like people who are middle-aged," he said. "Where you have young people congregated, in easy-to-reach places for voter mobilization activities to happen you actually do see higher turnout levels than elsewhere.”
Common Cause suggests a number of reforms to encourage younger voters to participate in democracy, including pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds so they are added to the voter rolls automatically on their 18th birthdays; allowing registration portability, which would eliminate paperwork hassles for young voters who tend to move often; same-day voting registration; and convenient polling sites on university campuses for state and local elections.
In the end, new voting reforms can be in place, knowledge of the issues a click away on smart devices, but it's really up to millennials to weigh the costs of voting versus the costs of not doing so. If young voters don't think it's worth taking the time to get informed and show up at the polls, Sanders suggests: "Ask them how much they’re going to leave school in debt with. Ask them about that.”