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We Just Don't Care

We Just Don’t Care
Baldwin Wallace University student Calla Bufford, from Scranton, Pa., feeds her ballot into a scanner at a polling site on campus in Berea, Ohio Tuesday, Nov...

It was Super Tuesday for the 2014 midterm elections this week, but some of us here at Team RFD have been asking why younger generations just don’t seem interested.

According to a March 2014 Harvard University Institute of Politics (IOP) poll, only 23% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 “definitely” plan to vote in the 2014 midterm elections, a sharp drop from the 34% who planned to vote five months ago. This 23% number beat the record low from the 2010 midterms, when Republicans overtook Democratic seats – that year 31% of voters under 30 responded that they “definitely” planned to vote in midterms.

But get this: a new poll released last week by the Youth Engagement Fund and Project New America reveals that millennials could determine the fate of the 2014 elections…if they actually vote.

I grew up in Illinois, went to college in Connecticut and now live in New York. And if you ask me to tell you about the midterms in any of the three states that I’ve lived in, I’ve got nothing.

Here’s why. Because I am registered in Connecticut but no longer live there, I am totally out of touch with the social networks that would allow me to get read in on a statewide election. I used to be able to rely on smaller scale tools like word of mouth on campus and our school’s daily paper for good intel, but finding access to these tools takes time. And as we move around, change jobs and go back to school, this is pretty much at the bottom of our priority lists.

People my age are also lazy. The thought of changing my registration information to reflect my current address in a different state or taking the time to vote absentee? Ugh. We procrastinate and only decide to deal with these logistical headaches when it’s something we’re actually passionate about.

Which brings me to my next point – at the heart of the apathy curse is a more general pessimism towards American politics. Our age bracket’s trust in public institutions is at a five-year low, and our “cynicism toward the political process has never been higher,” according to the IOP’s director Trey Grayson. Only 14% of young people believe that Congress is doing the right thing.

Tell me something I don’t know. But what does it actually mean? I surveyed millennials this week to try to understand why more young people are not voting. Many who completed the survey complained about not feeling “invested or interested enough to vote”.  Or not having anything “to get fired up about.” One person responded that they “only vote for President, Governor and issues that matter to me.”

PolicyMic co-founder and editor-in-chief Jake Horowitz attributes this apathy to feeling ignored by Washington. "Elected officials generally ignore our generation and the issues young people care about addressing. When politicians do use digital media to engage our generation and talk about important topics like college affordability and climate change,” he explained, “we often feel like it's just empty rhetoric."

And memo to the various campaigns: candidates need to make a focused pivot towards our demographic. “Rarely have we seen politicians use digital media creatively to engage our generation in authentic and genuine conversations about real issues,” lamented Jake. “To mobilize young people, candidates need to let us know where they stand on the issues we care about. When we see our friends sharing how excited they are about a politician on social media, we're much more likely to take the time to go to the polls and cast our vote.”

We are the first internet babies, so everyone assumes that social media is the key to reaching us. But midterm talk is all over social media – campaign strategies now include active social media presences and organizations like Rock the Vote are based in online activity – and yet young people still don’t seem excited. All of the information we could want is right in front of our faces and we just choose to ignore it.

So maybe the approach to reaching us is flawed. According to the New Republic’s Sasha Issenberg, “all the research suggests that the most effective form of outreach is also the most seemingly old-fashioned: a conversation on a doorstep between a potential voter and a well-trained volunteer.”

I could not agree more. The only reason that I registered to vote when I turned 18 was because someone came to my door in college with registration forms and a pen and helped me sign up right then and there. My interactions with those election volunteers, coupled with the groundswell of energy from my peers surrounding the election, got me pumped up about participating. Websites like Rock the Vote’s Online Voter Registration make the registration process a lot easier, but there’s something to be said for nagging student volunteers going door to door and taking the time to have an actual conversation with you.

So I need to ask -- is it possible to cultivate that sense of community in the post-grad world? How can we be encouraged to feel like these elections actually matter to us?

I chatted with Rock the Vote’s new president Ashley Spillane about that organization’s efforts to engage young people. “We have all these different channels to get the message out,” Ashley explained. “We just have to do it in as many places with as many people as many times as possible.” The bulk of Rock the Vote’s work is done online, which accounts for their successful voter registration numbers. But how can we make the leap between registering people to vote and actually galvanizing them around issues and candidates? Spillane told me that this is her favorite question to answer. “All we have to do is get millennials to acknowledge that when we vote, we decide the election. There’s a lot of power in that and there’s an importance in educating people in what the importance and relevance is in a midterm year.”

Let’s make 2014 the year of the millennials.