Today, a portion of Americans will vote in the most contested and emotionally charged midterm elections that many of us have witnessed. But the crucial word there is “portion,” because statistically speaking, Americans don’t usually vote en masse. And there’s one demographic in particular that has routinely underperformed at the ballot box on Election Day: millennials.
Voting-eligible young adults (of which I am one) have been profiled and pilloried for their reluctance to take part in elections. Last month, an NBC News/GenForward survey found that just over one third of Millennials said they probably or definitely will vote in this year’s midterms. And what’s wild is that this underwhelming estimate is actually a slight uptick from the 2016 presidential race and the 2014 midterms, when millennial turnout didn’t get close to 30 percent, according to the Census.
Scores of young people sitting out elections isn’t exactly a new thing. (Baby boomers won’t admit it, but even they were less reliable voters during their youth.) But what is unique about millennials is the fact that in 2019, we will become the largest living generation in America. This grants us sizable political power that could decide elections. If we show up.
Voting-eligible young adults (of which I am one) have been profiled and pilloried for their reluctance to take part in elections.
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The problem is that when it comes to persuading ambivalent millennials to vote, most people are doing it wrong. Since the day after Trump clinched the presidency in 2016, the question I’ve heard many boomers, Gen-Xers, and even some of my contemporaries ask is, “How we get all these lazy millennials to wake up and vote?”
But that’s the absolute worst way to approach this challenge.
As the author of a book about my generation, I’ve interviewed hundreds of millennial voters and non-voters. And what I’ve learned is you have to prove to young people that you understand where they're coming from. Quite often, millennials don’t vote because they don’t believe that our political system can be a vehicle for change and progress and they don’t think their vote will make a difference. This is especially true for young people who volunteered for President Barack Obama, for example, and then watched in disbelief as Wall Street was given a slap on the wrist following the 2008 financial crisis.
In other words, when disillusioned millennials say that “the system” is controlled by the worst kind of elites, they’ve got a point. But when they claim that voting won’t make a difference, they’re incorrect. That’s the window through which you can begin to turn them.
Here’s how you do it. The first and hardest step to engage a millennial non-voter involves putting your anger aside. Shaming millennials into voting almost never works. Getting mad might satisfy your ego, but it won’t bring you closer to reaching your goal, which is persuading a new millennial voter to cast a ballot on November 6. You can (and should) still ask them, “Why aren’t you voting?” But tone is everything. Ask sincerely, not with sarcasm or indignation.
If you do this right, you’ll likely be rewarded with a grim monologue about how all politicians are corrupt because our electoral system forces them to spend so much time fundraising for their next race. The second step is conceding that some of these things are true. Most politicians are beholden to the donor class and often have to be pushed by voters to honor campaign promises and fight for their constituents. This is the nature of our politics today and feeling disgusted by it is entirely understandable. It’s not how democracy is supposed to work.
Now comes the most important trick of the conversation — you have to re-frame voting. Millennials are used to hearing that if they just vote, all the problems plaguing their generation would vanish. This, of course, is not true and millennials know that. Voting today is more like a choice between having a chipmunk or a wolverine attached to your neck. And that’s how you should start your sell — not as the end-all, be-all of resistance, but as an essential act of harm reduction. Fixing America’s electoral system in a broader sense will take years if not decades, but that fight will be much more possible if our elected officials aren’t railroading destructive policies through Congress.
The coup de grace of your argument is simply reminding your millennial audience of what those policies can look like. Democrats, for instance, are not looking to erase the legal definition of what it means to be transgender. They’re not blowing racist dog-whistles about migrant caravans and fanning the flames of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. And of course, the Democrats are not stacking the courts with activist judges whose views on abortion don’t gel with how millennials feel about the issue.
Does this approach actually get millennials to vote? In my experience, the answer is often yes. But everyone should be prepared to end the chat on an ambiguous note. You may never actually know if you made a difference.
But what you will know is that you tried ― you’ll know that you listened, empathized and made a clear and pragmatic case for pulling the lever. And hopefully the millennial non-voter will recognize this as well. They'll respect that you tried to understand where they’re coming from. Most Americans (including politicians) still haven't done that.