We Should Listen When Young People Say They Probably Won’t Vote
November 2nd | 2018

An article came across my feed the other day from New York Magazine, about 12 young people and why they don’t feel compelled to vote.

Lots of people saw it and shared it, and it generated a lot of discussion. I shared it to my own Facebook page and the general reaction from older, more politically active people was one of horror. I bear some responsibility for this, having posted it with my own status caption: “We’re Doomed.” But the more I saw the reactions, the dismissals and the criticism, the more the article and the people in it intrigued me. Some people wrote the article off as a sensationalist cherry-picking of “stupid kids” to generate viral spread (possibly true). Others took it as an opportunity to reinforce well-worn stereotypes about Millennials, culminating in this satirical article from The Washington Post.

I admit I laughed at the article – it’s clever and funny in a Lena Dunham sort of way (who is of course name-checked in the article). But it is ultimately based on a conceit us older generations have that Millennials are a selfish and useless generation – that technology has made them stupid and self-centered. And that we – despite being the generations that built this world for them – have some kind of moral and existential superiority over them.

People who know me know that generic hatred of Millennials – especially in the form of clickbait articles that begin “Millennials are ruining…..” – is one of my least favorite things. So after my initial shock at the content, I went back to my natural state of curiosity about it. Are these kids stupid? Or is it just that we are not listening to them? I find the latter to be true most of the time.

So I went through the New York Magazine article and actually tried to understand what each interviewee was really saying. If you strip away all the stuff that makes you groan (like people being intimidated by the mail!), these voters are giving pretty straightforward reasons for their political apathy. I’m not saying I think they are justified necessarily, just worth listening to and considering if we care about engaging them.

Being a Minnesotan, I realize that Minnesota isn’t like other places in a lot of ways. And since I have a vested interest in our state, our city – and all the communities in it – I decided to try and figure out what this state does to offset some of the fears/feelings these young non-voters talked about.

What follows is my paraphrased interpretation of the needs/​desires expressed by the 12 people in the New York Magazine article.

Followed by my attempt to address their concerns – at least where our local elections are concerned. I would ask that if you are reading this and you know a young person – or anyone – who might not vote for any of these reasons that you share it with them.

#1. Politicians don’t have much effect on anything, especially if they are in the minority party.

This was the most far-reaching and gut-wrenching reason given in the article. After watching events like the Kavanaugh confirmation, it can definitely seem like political power is an all-or-nothing proposition based on what party you belong to. And yes – it seems like that now because bipartisanship is being overrun by a desire to “show progress” and “get things done” at all cost. I believe that this is happening at a national level and will eventually infiltrate local politics, but I think there are many examples of “opposition” politicians doing amazing things and driving change. My co-worker sent me this example from Georgia, one of many throughout the country.

#2. I’m not informed enough.

This is a well-meaning objection. Yes, it’s good to make informed decisions. But as someone who grew up in the 80s, I remember this one off-handed comment David Letterman made on his show during an election year: “…and remember folks…your vote counts as much as people who actually know something about the candidates!” Ba-da-bum! But there is genius in this joke. At a minimum, you have a right and you should exercise it. The good news is that these days there isn’t much of an excuse for being uninformed. A quick post to my own social media asking for resources on races/candidates generated no less that half-a-dozen links to resources about this, like this one from MPR which is pretty neutral/informative.

#3. I don’t know how to register or am afraid to.

Watching news about sinister voter-suppression tactics in other states is depressing, but fortunately in Minnesota you can actually register on election day, right at your polling place. I did this the first time I voted at age 18, and it’s still a thing. Here is how it works.

#4. My state makes it hard for me to vote.

Again, this is a legit excuse in some states. It’s a problem and it’s usually pathetically politically-motivated. Minnesota provides so many different ways to vote. Vote early, vote absentee, vote in your neighborhood. It’s much less intimidating here than in other places. And it’s important that we all understand how awesome that is and make use of it.

#5. Politicians cater to older voters.

I mean, I’m trying not to say this in a condescending way at all but they do that because OLDER VOTERS VOTE! The only way to get listened to is to start exercising your power. As a member of Generation X, I can say Millennials are pretty lucky. Our generation is a small one that exists between two much, much larger generations. We did some cool stuff but ultimately no one cares about what we think. If young people start showing up, the politicians will follow. And, most importantly, there are a lot of younger people getting into politics at every level. These are the people who might have your interests in mind and are part of your generation. Support them!

#6. I am a student from out-of-state and it’s complicated to register.

I’m not sure how it works in other states, but Minnesota absolutely welcomes people to vote who have been permanent residents for at least 20 days. So…uhhh…if you go to the U of M you are likely eligible to vote here. And we want your vote, no matter where you are from, as long as this is “home” to you. Your vote affects our state and it also affects your school. This page explains the ins-and-outs of this pretty simply, and remember you can register on the spot on election day.

#7. The candidates aren’t exciting enough for me.

It’s true that a lot of politicians aren’t as exciting as the celebrities, musicians, artists or business visionaries we admire. I’ve voted for more than my share of “boring” candidates. I voted for Michael Dukakis the year I was first eligible to vote. I voted for John Kerry, who was honestly pretty hard to get behind. Especially at the national level, candidates tend to appeal to the lowest common denominator — so even if you agree with them, it doesn’t mean you feel amazing about it. But on a local level it’s different. There are more exciting and interesting politicians than ever. You just have to look for them, pay attention to them and connect with them. In my congressional district, the Democratic candidate is Ilhan Omar, who is not only a Millennial, but someone who actually understands culture and the internet enough to find memes/conspiracy theories about herself funny enough to tweet about, emojis and all. I realize I am showing my political bias toward progressive politics, but no matter what you believe there are interesting people out there who passionately believe the same, and they desperately need your support.

#8. My state doesn’t do a good job of communicating my registration status.

Again, Minnesota is a bit ahead of the pack on this. Click this link to find out what your current status is and if I haven’t said it enough times: you can still register.

#9. Voting feels like a letdown afterwards, especially if you lose.

This is the peril of caring about politics – frankly, caring about anything. The more emotions you invest in elections, the more terrible you feel when it doesn’t go your way. Believe me, I’ve had my share of these (refer above to some Presidential candidates I’ve voted for in my life). There are many ways to deal with this kind of grief, but for the purpose of this post I would point to this article about what Presidential candidates who have lost went on to achieve afterward. Voting for someone gives them a platform and gives them power even if it’s not the power you wanted to bestow on them.

#10. It’s more complicated than other processes I go through.

At Zeus Jones, our work often deals with user experience and making things more simple and intuitive. And the claim that one of the NYMag interviewees made that it was easier to get medical weed that it was to vote made me laugh. I mean, that’s kind of a good thing, right? But it proves that there are experience barriers and complexities that need to be eliminated. This is something we all have to work on, but in the meantime sites like TurboVote are doing their best to create simple, one-stop interfaces for all voters.

#11. I have to use vacation time to vote.

If this is true, it’s bullshit. Employers need to give people time to vote. We’ve always done this here at Zeus Jones, but this is the first year we’ve done officially – closing the office for a half-day on election day. Regardless of whether your employer explicitly supports this, there are laws in our state designed to protect your ability to vote. You can read about them here.

#12. Information about candidates/voting isn’t available where I consume info – like social media.

This was maybe the most controversial comment and the one that attracted the most ridicule. But here is how I see it: a young person is telling you very explicitly how they like to consume information and you can do with that what you will. I know that in our daily work for brands, businesses and non-profits we would see this kind of specificity as a huge opportunity to open a new channel to an audience. So why wouldn’t we do the same politically-speaking?

Instead of making fun of kids getting their information from Snapchat, how about getting up on there and sharing things with them? Having said that – to those who say there isn’t enough political stuff in the channels they consume I beg to differ. A simple search on almost any social platform will reveal a TON of conversation about candidates and issues. It’s up to you sort out what is accurate, believable and aligns with your beliefs, but that's true of almost everything now, isn’t it? I found this article that has some interesting stats on the sheer volume of content on social media about various candidates. Some of it is misleading or misguided. But it’s out there, you can find it, and you can decide for yourself what you believe and act on that.

OK, so I get the irony that I wrote something this long and in-depth aimed at a TL;DR audience.

But I wrote this also for the people who feel discouraged at young people’s supposed disregard for their power. If you live in Minnesota and care about the democratic process I hope you will listen closely to what the disenfranchised are saying and reach out to reassure them – even if you think their reasons are dumb.

I think a lot can be gained by actually listening to kids and younger adults on any number of matters. The way they express themselves and their values is alien to a lot of older people – and many Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers choose to pick on these unique quirks. But when you set that aside and really take in what they are saying, there’s a very good chance you’ll learn something important.