I’ve been looking forward to 2016 for a long time. I have always been very excited about having the opportunity to vote. The idea of democracy, in which my voice counts, just sounds incredible to me. And it has since I was a child. This is my first presidential election, and I’ve felt many things — awe, anger, sadness, frustration. This election has brought out some characters, that’s for sure. But it has also done a lot to place attention on the stereotypes that surround young voters, as well as debate on how/if candidates should attempt to grab their attention.
Now, let me just say that politics has kinda always been my thing. I was definitely the kid who read books about the Founding Fathers and wrote letters to the president and dreamed about having the opportunity to vote someday. But more than that, supporting the voices and work of young people has been a huge part of my life since I started doing community projects at 11. Which is why it’s so aggravating to me that candidates feel so comfortable dismissing the voices of young people while still asking for their vote.
Bear with me here. Because every time I say that the youth vote isn’t being taken seriously this election cycle, I get a “But every candidate out here is trying to connect with young people!” And here’s where I do some serious side-eye.
This is the first presidential election in which young voters make up as much of the electorate as Baby Boomers, which should make it almost impossible for candidates to be able to ignore this group of voters. However, in most elections, young voters are less likely to vote than their older counterparts. And, if you ever talk to a millennial about this, there are a few main reasons young people don’t show up to the polls:
1. They don’t feel that voting leads to the tangible short-term and long-term action they want to see.
2. They don’t feel that the candidates represent (or care about) the interests of young people.
3. They feel that the systems that make up our government lack platforms for their involvement and therefore doesn’t represent them at the individual or collective level.
So, instead of being politically engaged, young people often choose to address the things we care about in other ways: community organizing, starting nonprofits and social enterprises, donating, volunteering. What we’re seeing with Generations Y and Z is a force for change, outside of the standard avenues for enacting that change. But even this isn't static. This year’s college freshmen are the most politically engaged since the '60s. And we’re more likely to protest or petition than any group in 50 years. And the issues we care about range from the economy to education to climate change, LGBT issues, criminal justice reform, and more.
Instead of recognizing these issues and inviting young people to be a part of campaigns or conversations, what we’re seeing is way too many candidates trying to win the votes of young people by making rap references, adopting youth slang, and utilizing the online platforms through which young people often express their thoughts and opinions.
But it’s not enough for a candidate to know Drake lyrics or use Snapchat. I need to be able to trust that whoever I vote for has my future in mind when they develop policies. And it’s very hard to believe that's the case when the extent of my involvement is expected to be posing for selfies and being quiet. It is not acceptable for candidates to dismiss young voters as people who don’t turn out, just to go into panic mode when we start showing support for someone else.
Young people get a lot of crap for being apathetic at the same time we’re being told we’re too young to understand what we’re talking about when we speak out on the issues that matter to us. When you agree with the platform of a candidate, you’re a bright young leader who is “wise beyond their years," but as soon as you question them, you “probably don’t have the experience” to speak on the topic.
I’m very tired of having youth issues explained to me by people who haven’t been defined as young since before I was born. Candidates don’t care about young people as much as they care about our votes. And, far too often, we see candidates who don’t understand how to connect with young people but really want to show us they can use Instagram.
The best thing a candidate can do when appealing to young people is simple: Listen. We are passionate. And intelligent. And we get it. We’ll tell you what we want to see and what we want to vote for. We crave authentic dialogue. And, as a generation, we’re forcing people to pay attention to us. We’re not only making room for our voices to be heard, we’re building our own platforms to amplify the issues we want to address and using them to hold our leaders accountable. It’s a mistake to think ignoring the youth vote can still lead to a win, but perhaps a bigger one to think that pandering to young people through pop culture will lead to youth support.
All of this is not to say that any person running for office over a certain age can’t engage young people or appeal to them without being ridiculous. That’s the opposite of true. But young voters are a lot smarter than campaigns give us credit for. So instead of pandering, let’s focus on building real relationships with young voters that ultimately benefit both parties and lead to a stronger, more involved population down the road.
The thing with young people is that we’re so diverse in our backgrounds, our strengths, and the issues we care about. Which is why it’s hard to pinpoint one solution. Youth councils are great. Paying young people to work for you is a much-needed step. Supporting existing youth organizations is crucial. But the center of all of this is actually very simple: Include us in your conversations. Don’t just decide how you will appeal to us. Let us be involved in exploring how we could be engaged.
And, please, no more of this.
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