If you’re among the 86 percent of people who currently disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, then you better have a gigantic red circle on your calendar marking Election Day.
But if you’re under 30, there’s about a 75 percent chance you don’t plan to vote on Nov. 4. Without a presidential race to stoke interest and mobilize voters, turnout this November will likely be down significantly from 2012. That’s a huge missed opportunity considering every member of the House of Representatives is currently up for reelection, the majority of the Senate is at stake, and 36 governors’ offices are up for grabs.
Young voters arguably have the most to gain from mobilizing in the often-ignored midterm elections. Millennials—those born between 1980 and 2000—make up one-fourth of the American electorate this year. The millennial generation is also the most diverse generation in American history, with radically different views on issues that are typically political lightning rods—like marriage equality, reproductive health, and immigration—than older voters.
And yet the millennial generation, which includes more than 46 million people, has nowhere near the level of recognized political clout as the 39 million senior voters over the age of 65.
In large part, that’s because millennials live outside of the partisan bubble that dictates most American politics. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials “are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation” since Pew started polling, with 50 percent of millennials considering themselves politically independent. Millennials also have the lowest level of social trust—only 19 percent of Millennials said most people can be trusted—and yet they maintain a higher level of optimism in America’s future than older generations.
So, the multi-billion dollar question remains: how do we inspire millennials to take a more proactive role in elections? What could overcome the sense of partisan gridlock that cripples our political system and jades generations of young voters?
As the executive director of the non-partisan voter mobilization organization HeadCount, I think the answer lies in making Election Day a “cultural moment” —one that is about expression and participation and decidedly not about the blow-by-blow of Washington politics.
While few partisan campaigns have had success or exerted much effort to target their messages toward young voters, more than 80 independent organizations are dedicated to driving youth voter turnout this year and in elections to come.
On Election Day, HeadCount will try to unleash the full power of the musicians we work with, and their incredible connection with young people. Over 300 entertainers, ranging from Dave Matthews to “Weird Al” Yankovic to Russell Simmons, will take to social media Tweeting, Facebook posting and Instagramming photos with artwork that says “#GoVote.” Some of the top names in comedy are in on it too, including Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien. Collectively the participants have more than 350 million social media followers and fans, dwarfing even the most popular elected officials.
Democracy doesn’t have to be caught up in the partisan trappings that often prevent young people from engaging and participating fully. Millennials need to be engaged in the forums they most often frequent, and by cultural leaders who truly have the power to inspire. Only through that approach can we cause some much-needed shakeups on Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the country.
Bernstein is the executive director of Headcount, a non-partisan organization that uses the power of music to register voters and promote participation in democracy.