The Power of One


Casey Bacon, Co-Editor

Comparatively speaking, voter turnout– regardless of party– in the U.S. has never been excellent. Though it’s been called “fundamental to a healthy democracy,” the American public has lacked the gusto that many other national democracies seem to have for their right. On average, turnout rate stands at approximately 60%, 10% below the global curve. The figures for the youth vote are even more dismal. Though we, the Millennial generation, comprise a solid third of the electorate, only 50% of eligible voters (ages 18-29) cast their ballots. Whether disgust, ignorance, or apathy, the appeal of politics is plummeting, and the ultimate effects of this disregard could trample all guaranteed rights to life, liberty, and our pursuit of happiness.

We ought to clarify that these figures aren’t cut-and-dry: they fluctuate often, and the numbers are a bit skewed in their comparison due to the voluntary factor of American voting. Only about 84.3% of registered voters come out to participate in elections (leaving us 7th in the list of over 100 democratic economies that form the Organization for Economic Cooperation), but this is a much more “self-selected” group who is more likely to vote because they took the trouble to register themselves in the first place. Meanwhile, countries with compulsory voting, voting mandated by law, like Australia, Belgium, and Chile all saw turnout around 90% in the 2000s.

Why is it that one of the world’s most powerful countries falls to the wayside when it comes to elections? Where to start, is the real question. Unfortunately, our voting laws set us up for virtual failure. As the figures show, most other democracies automatically register citizens when they come of age to cast a ballot; responsibility for enrollment thus falls onto the broad shoulders of the government. In the cases of most countries, the federal administration knows the names, addresses, and ages of most of its citizens, and provides the appropriate polling places with a list of those qualified to vote. The voter has only to show up. Though the choice to participate is theirs, fines are imposed for those who decline. With elective enrollment, however, there’s not only the need for the initiative to act, but the process itself is easily clogged with procedures that deter some potential candidates from continuing. There’s also the sheer inconvenience of election day. The government expects all American citizens to drop everything; work, family, vocations, doctor’s visits, dental appointments; and take up their civic duty: a Tuesday. To be fair, the day made sense when Congress established November’s first Tuesday as the national day for federal elections. 150 years ago, most of the nation’s citizens still lived on farms and were devouts forbidden to travel on Sabbath. Those eligible to vote (the wide pool of white men who were permitted to) could take this day off, take Monday as a travel day to get to the county seat in the nearest town, vote on Tuesday, and use Wednesday to get back home.

With the buggy no longer the prime mode of transportation and many people no longer spending their lives tending to a field of crops, the day doesn’t hold the same importance. Most democracies, established after ours and benefitting from our mistakes, now have a greater chance to cast their ballots. They have multiple voting days, have polls open on weekends, or have given workers an entire day off to cast their ticket. The opportunity to participate is far greater there than in the strict structure of the land of the free. Bills have been proposed to change voting procedures but with strict partisan lines ever-present, these have never gotten far. The demographics of the electorate don’t help participation numbers either. Because the electoral college really casts the votes, some states exhibit far more power than others, ergo gaining far more attention from candidates in their campaigning and encouraging far more participation from the public. The 2012 election turnout confirms this postulate; the nation’s 12 most competitive states saw 66% of eligible voters cast a ballot while only an average of 57% came out in the nation’s other 39 states.

The youth vote proves an even more elusive beast for candidates, regardless of party alliance. Only 50% of eligible young voters came out to participate in 2012. Unfortunately for politicians seeking office, there’s a prevailing belief in the demographic that there’s nothing to like about politics in the first place. “About half of millennials refuse to associate with one of the major political parties,” reports news outlet Big Think, “meaning that their issues are largely ignored… The reason millennials don’t vote is because politics doesn’t serve their interests. The reason politics don’t serve their interest is because they don’t vote.” The logical fallacy is apparent, but the cycle seems nonetheless inescapable. The political moral stance held by the average millennial doesn’t help perceptions. A Harvard University poll found that  less than a third think that running for office is an honorable thing to do and only two-thirds believe politicians go into public service for selfish reasons. Harvard’s 2014 study found that trust in the president has taken a tumble from 54% to 47%– the first time it’s dipped below a majority. Even the faith in the Supreme Court dropped from 40% to 36%. In spite of this, the generation holds an unprecedented expectation for accountability. Routinely fact-checking these politicians, a 2013 Roosevelt Institute study may have put it best: “we’re less interested in big government versus small government than we are in a better government– making our democratic systems more inclusive and more responsive.”

Although their interest is waning, the news that they do receive from the political scene comes primarily from the utmost of reliable sources: social media. Six in ten online millennials report getting political news on Facebook in a given week, a much larger percentage than any other news source, reports a Pew Research analysis. On the other end of the spectrum, Baby Boomers rarely use Facebook as a source, while Generation X’ers receive roughly half of political and governmental news on Facebook. And while roughly a quarter of millennials express interest in politics, they prove to be less familiar with many of the 36 sources asked about in the survey– ranging from USA Today to Slate to Rush Limbaugh. Luckily for political hopefuls, USA Today calls the millennial generation “more pragmatic than ideological and not yet firmly aligned to either party.” In a collaborative effort between the news source and Rock the Vote, their January poll found that Trump leads with Republicans and Sanders with the Democrats, especially among women. Overall, it’s millennials who are the most likely to support “liberal ideas”– legalizing same-sex marriage, supporting pathways to citizenship for immigrants, and legal abortion. Even those who identify with the GOP are recorded as being far more liberal than the Republicans of any other generations. As no real surprise, the top issue for the generation is the economy: job concerns, minimum wage, paid leave. Following this are issues that are just as prevalent in their daily lives: college affordability and student debt, foreign policy/terrorism, healthcare, guns, energy concerns, environmental problems.

In a touch of optimism, trends in U.S. politics now show that the generation of today is turning more towards volunteering than voting. “The confusion,” decides the Atlantic, “seems to stem from the fact that millennials– unlike their predecessors– don’t see today’s government as the best venue for performing their civic duty.” The 2014 Allstate-National Journal Poll backs this, finding that 83% of millennials think life would be better if Americans volunteered more time and money to community groups and charitable organizations. Among those older than 34, only 62% of participants answered in the same fashion, demonstrating just how the American attitude towards politics has, and continues to, shift.

For all these hesitations, doubts, or the outright apathy from the budding electorate, the importance of voting prevails just as strongly as it always has in the history of America. Not only have many fought and died to protect this right, but it’s a massive say that many other countries deny to their citizens; you have the chance to elect your government officials, and the health of our country rests on this being exercised. If we don’t capitalize on this chance, we’re letting this voice remain ignored on the evolving and controversial issues of health care, education, and the economy, among others– and politicians are always more likely to support initiatives that are popular among groups with the highest voter turnout. To have significant influence, greater numbers must turn out than those traditionally seen. What we need to realize is that this influence is not unattainable: the millennial, college-aged vote, rivalling the Baby Boomers in numbers, stand as a powerful political force if mobilized. Don’t be fooled by the idea that a single vote can’t or won’t count; many elections, on levels from local to federal, come down to a handful of ballots. If we don’t take the initiative to vote for what we believe in, others will– and the outcome might not be so favorable.

The reform to the American voting system isn’t impossible, nor even unlikely, with the implementation of a few altering measures. First and foremost, there’s a dire need to not only teach kids the importance of voting, but engage them to do so. Rock the Vote, a non-profit organized for the purpose of mobilizing the youth vote, estimates that 12,000 Americans turn 28 every month, but that many don’t receive information about how to vote or the necessity of it. As youth researcher for CIR-CLE Abby Kiesa believes, “young people can be intimidated by politics they don’t know ‘enough’ about.” As of now, only nine states require students to pass a social studies test– which American government falls under– to graduate from high school; and while young people undoubtedly show an apathy towards politics, those who hold higher education levels are more likely to vote than those who do not. Though the initiative needs to be taken by the individual, there does need to be an outreach from the politics themselves. “We know that grassroots mobilization efforts,” tells Liz Accola, a spokesperson for campaign group America Votes, “have been– and continue to be– the best way to reach voters.” However, as Pew Research reports, the age group between 18 and 29 were the least likely to be contacted by a campaign via phone, email, texts, or home visits. From here, for both the millennial groups and beyond, the heeding of calls to make voting easier could make all the difference. While young people are twice as likely to register to vote as the older demographic, the practice of online voting, an area where millennials are most comfortable utilizing, is only available in 23 states. “We have to meet young people where they are, which is online,” says Ashley Spillane, president of Rock the Vote, “to get people registered to vote.” The fact that voter ID is required to cast a ballot has also been shown to have a negative effect on youth turnout, as if you forget your ID– and with our busy lives, we’re prone to do– you cannot vote. According to Government Accountability Office findings, states that have tightened these laws saw a disproportion drop in turnout among voters 18-23 in past elections; proving that the more hoops that voters have to jump through to participate will leave many tripped up, fallen, and unwilling to get up to try again.

That’s where the issue lies, folks: ultimately, we’re going to be the ones in charge down the line. We’ll be the ones who have the widest margin of say on some of the most contentious topics of today. The economy is paramount: not only are we moving to be active participants in our economy, but most experts believe that social security benefits will be all but gone by the time our generation reaches retirement– which will stand marginally higher than it is now. Foreign policy matters, including where in the world to get militarily involved in war affairs. It’s not the politicians or the president who are deployed to fight in the line of danger in other countries; it’s America’s youth, us, who go off to do so. As many experts warn, we are causing serious, potentially irreversible changes to the earth– our home– that could drastically alter life on the planet, we need to stake our say in how to preserve it for both us and generations to come. The youth of America needs to mobilize as if our future depends on it. Because, well, it does.