Mid-term elections are supposed to be “turn out the vote” elections. Because voter turnout is so much lower than during presidential election years, the aim is not swaying a general mass of undecided voters. Rather, since most of the people who vote in midterms are assumed to be staunch ideologues, whichever side is able to get more of their ideologues to the polls will win. Here, Republicans have the advantage, because their base of ideologues is old white people. There is no history of voter discrimination or suppression among old white people. They are not a group that has systematically denied their rights without redress. They’ve had a pretty good go of it in these United States and find no issue participating in the sacred tradition of voting.
It’s a little different for Democrats. The Democratic Party has a assembled a ragtag coalition of the huddled masses shunned by the GOP. Among that group is young people—called “millennials” this time around—who are supposedly the most apathetic of all voting blocs. Each election cycle, a mix of guilt-tripping, shaming and celebrity-driven get-out-the-vote campaigns attempt to get young people to the polls. And each election cycle someone wonders, “Why don’t young people vote?”
But young people do vote. They vote at about the same rate in most midterm elections, with the 18-to-30-year-old vote making up around 13 percent of the total electorate. But it’s not the 19 percent that Obama brought in during his presidential runs, and therein lies the problem for Democrats. They believed they had an energized new base that they would be able to turn out even in off years, one that would sway elections in the forseeable future. Twenty fourteen was a huge disappointment for them. And now the “Why don’t young people vote?” questions have begun.
If I had the answer for what would have gotten millennials to vote in midterm elections, I wouldn’t be writing for The Nation; instead, I’d be charging exorbitant amounts of money in consulting fees to both major political parties. Besides, what I do have to say is hardly novel. It’s a message Democrats don’t seem to want to hear, but it remains true nonetheless: If you want voters to show up to the polls, you have to give them something to vote for.
Particularly millennials. Democrats have to understand that the coveted millennial vote comes at a greater price than “the other side is horrible.” That’s an old script that works for an old way of seeing the world, where voting is harm reduction at best. millennials want their votes to count. That’s why, in the past few years, you’ve seen people who cast their first ballots for Barack Obama sleep in Zuccotti Park and occupy the Florida state capital. For all the lofty rhetoric about change, the machinations of Washington felt eerily similar after Obama’s election, and local governments no better, even though millennials had been sold on the idea that voting would have this incredible impact. In turn, they’ve found their voice in other forms of participatory democracy.