To increase youth turnout, make voting sexy

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With a year left before a presidential election, America has a major challenge ahead: getting its young citizens to exercise, not just in the gym, but in the voting booth.

We need teens and 20-somethings, and the entire under-35 generation, to get motivated and engaged in choosing the direction of this nation. In 2014, just under 37 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote, the lowest level of voter turnout seen in a midterm  election since World War II. Of all demographics, the greatest drop-off in voting from a presidential year to a midterm is among young voters under 40. The share of the electorate composed of voters under 40 fell 10 percentage points from 36 percent in 2012 to 26 percent in 2014.

{mosads}Young people were motivated during the election of Barack Obama and the number of young voters did rise, with 52 percent turnout. But many young people didn’t feel involved after the election, and interest in politics trailed off. The rate of voters younger than 30 who could say with certainty that they were registered to vote fell steadily after 2008, according to the Pew Research Center By 2012, it hit 50 percent: the lowest number Pew has recorded going back as far as 1996.

Ironically, the country, seven years later, is growing younger, as is the world. Millennials — 18- to 34-year-olds — will hit 75.3 million this year, according to the Census Bureau. But only half of them are likely to vote. How can we have such a large demographic — projected to surpass the outsized Baby Boomer generation this year as the nation’s largest living generation — not participate in choosing leaders?

Not only do we have young people; we have diverse young people. Latinos are the fastest growing part of the electorate: In 2014, 25.2 million Latinos were eligible to vote. By 2016, there will be an estimated 58.1 million Latinos in the United States. Latinos have added 1 million new voters to the electorate each year since 2010. A total of 800,000 Latinos turn 18 each year, one every 30 seconds or more than 66,000 individuals per month. Ninety-three percent of Latino children are U.S.-born citizens and will be eligible to vote when they reach the age of 18. The average age of the rising Latino voter is 27, compared to 42 years for non-Hispanic whites.

But according to national exit polls, the Latino share of the electorate — 8 percent — remained the same as four years earlier. Latino youth, in particular, are not exercising, in full measure, their right to vote nor do they receive the kind of individual encouragement they need to vote. Fifty-five percent of Latinos reported never being contacted by a party or campaign about voting or registering to vote in 2014.

We also have a growing populations of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders reaching the voting age. And African-American voters — especially young voters — are increasing their share of the overall national electorate.

So what accounts for youth inattention to voting? The answers are complex. At one level, there is disappointment with all forms of government, media and institutional organizations. Certainly, midterm voting is not of interest to young people unless it is a highly competitive race that directly affects them. For some groups, like Latino voters, there is deep anger over a lack of progress on issues like immigration reform and a resistance toward getting politically involved. (That issue may energize voters next year to get engaged, however.)

Some of the answer lies in the complexities and obstacles in registering. In most states, young people can register sometime before they reach the voting age of 18, provided that they will turn 18 by the next general election. But many of these eligible voters simply don’t pay attention to the process of registering or find, in some states, that it has become restrictive. Add to that the record-low approval ratings for Congress, record spending by outside groups and the negative tone of campaigns.

What can we do to engage young people in voting? Many great organizations like Rock the Vote have gained visibility promoting voting by having music stars appear in spots that air on MTV. But that effort needs more players and stakeholders to widen the work: We need a national campaign.

Perhaps we can connect voting to driving with a message that driving is fun and liberating — but so is deciding your country’s future. Leaders make laws that affect your right to choose, your future pay, the minimum wage, climate change, war and peace, and every issue that you can think of. If you want laws that are friendly to your concerns, you have to select the leaders who make those laws and carry out American policies. You have to “drive” your country.

Another message might be about the haves and have-nots in the America, letting young voters know that if they stay home, they create two different electorates in national elections: one more reflective of the eligible voting population in presidential elections, the other skewing much older. And that if they don’t express interest in voting, candidates will ignore them. A youth campaign may also need to be independent of party politics as more and more young people define their interests as “independent” and not tied to one political party.

This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which swept away a host of practices that barred or discouraged many from the polls. In its wake, nonpartisan voter registration drives have been organized across the nation by engaged nonprofits, civic community groups and others. While these actions have propelled our nation forward, the work of building democracy is never truly done. And if young people don’t vote, it sends a negative message about America both at home and abroad.

Let’s make voting sexy. We have 12 months to get these young people tuned in, turned on and out to the polls.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Tags 2016 presidential election Barack Obama turnout Voting

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