Young people could change this country.
They have the numbers. In 2016, Americans aged 18 to 35 were roughly 31% of the U.S. electorate. And the younger voters’ percentage is on the rise while the Boomers’ is declining because of mortality. By now, Millennials could be the largest cohort in American politics.
They are, by a long shot, the most liberal and racially diverse of the age groups eligible to vote. By substantial margins, they’re more likely to favor universal healthcare, climate action, diplomacy over military might, abortion rights, and to say that immigrants strengthen America, according to the Pew Research Center.
But they’re not changing the country.
That’s largely because, for all their potential power, they aren’t voting in substantial numbers.
The dismaying fact is that on Super Tuesday, despite the heavy stakes affecting their future, younger voters didn’t show up. In Virginia, for example, where overall voting surged 62% over four years ago, the share of young voters declined to 13%. The young cohort’s standard bearer, Sen. Bernie Sanders, won 55% of those young voters. But former vice president Joe Biden took the Old Dominion State, commandingly.
It was the same in North Carolina. Even in California, where Sanders is romping to victory with 89% of the vote counted, voters under age 30 were only 11% of the overall turnout.
Sanders admits that a pillar of his campaign strategy — a surge in youth voting — has flopped.
Granted, the numbers may improve in Tuesday’s six primaries, being held as this is written. But Sanders seems to be taking no chances, his rhetoric since Tuesday seemingly putting new emphasis on “working class” voters.
We find it regrettable that the Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigns did not turn more young people into voters. Sanders’ talk of “political revolution” might spook older voters, but it’s music to the young.
So why are youth voting percentages dropping in 2020?
NPR correspondent Michel Martin interviewed young voters in Washington state in advance of Tuesday’s primary, asking why more young people aren’t voting. One said that the candidates aren’t talking enough about their issues. That’s hard to believe, given how Sanders, especially, focuses on the financial straits of most Americans and his promise to eliminate student debt.
Another said there should be “an incentive to come to the polls to vote.” She suggested doughnuts.
What kind of breakdown in civics education produces young adults who think that voting is some kind of favor they do for someone else, like participating in a product survey and that they should get a little something in return?
Obviously, we need to instill in them that self-government is a fragile inheritance that doesn’t perpetuate itself. It needs the active participation of every new generation.
We know it doesn’t appear likely, given the trends. But it isn’t too late to confound the pollsters and pundits. Millennials have clout. They just have to go to the polls and use it.
A longer version of this editorial appeared in The Palm Beach Post.