Will millennials vote? What makes them vote? Are they apathetic? Are they guaranteed Democrats, or do they shun both political parties? There is seemingly infinite speculation about young people’s participation in the 2016 election, but as a millennial who works with thousands of young people across the country through the Roosevelt Institute Network, I can tell you the best way to answer these questions: Ask us.
Political campaigns are rightly in a constant state of concern about young people’s voting patterns. Our generation has the potential to dramatically reshape electoral and policy outcomes. People under 35 have led many of the major movements of the last eight years, including the Dreamers, Title IX activism, the Movement for Black Lives, and Occupy. And in 2016, the 86 million millennial and Generation Z Americans will be 36 percent of the electorate, including half of eligible Latino voters.
We have been deeply affected by the actions, or rather the inaction, of our political leaders. The rules that these leaders create shape our lives, but we don’t have a seat at the table when the decisions are made. Moreover, the decision-makers don’t think or look like we do because our elected bodies are significantly older and whiter than we are. For example, Latinos make up 17.4 percent of the US population but only 4 percent of state legislators. The average age of a state legislator is 56 years.
The data shows that young people are active in our communities, but less effort is made to reach us as voters. Even when candidates do try to connect, we’re only asked for our votes, not our ideas. This helps create a vicious cycle of low voter turnout and engagement.
The good news is that there has never been so much momentum on the ground to reform our broken system. Young people have the most to lose or gain in this election, and we’ve set out to show that while our generation is disenchanted with the state of our politics, we are not disengaged. We care about making progress on issues, but we believe the state of our politics must also change. Based on a survey of 1,000 young people from 160 schools, Roosevelt’s Next Generation Blueprint for 2016 challenges decision-makers to address our priorities with the same vigor as they seek our votes.
The young people who built this Blueprint want to go back to the fundamentals—the rules that allow us to be economically secure, to better ourselves without taking on crushing debt, and to live in safety and dignity. We want a strong public-education system that supports students from all backgrounds. We believe our economy can innovate without sacrificing economic security. We are unwilling to tolerate extreme levels of incarceration, nor the discrimination and even brutality that we see perpetrated so often against vulnerable communities.
In short, we believe that it matters who writes the rules, not just what the rules are. Eighty percent of young people we surveyed said a fair and inclusive democratic process was more important than seeing a particular candidate win. This isn’t about one election—it’s about making sure our whole governing process includes and represents the people most affected by its outcomes.
This is not a pipe dream or the product of naïveté: We have a Blueprint to change the national political dynamic to reflect an emerging America that is the most diverse and dynamic in our country’s history. In addition to making meaningful commitments to decrease the role of money in politics, elected officials can start by supporting a number of proposals suggested in our blueprint, such as lowering the voting age to 16 locally, modernizing voter registration, and repealing draconian voter ID laws.
This isn’t just an abstract policy debate for us. As a young American, I’ve seen how the rules have impacted almost every aspect of my life. I am the daughter of two US Marines who worked hard to build a middle-class life from a background in poverty, served our country, and raised me and my sister. Hard work, perseverance, and service to others were values instilled in me by my parents. Yet, no matter how hard my family worked, a truly secure life always seemed one step out of reach. My family and my peers have suffered the consequences of regressive policy, from the student-loan crisis to medical debt. I have seen friends with four-year degrees struggle to make a living wage and family members grow increasingly fearful of walking down the street due to the color of their skin.
This is my story and the story of the young people I speak with every day. Our stories should not be cause for dismay and apathy; we are still hopeful and invested in improving our communities. We are tired of the same old battles, but we haven’t given up the fight. We know that the rules matter. And we care about who gets to write them.