Millennials forgo voting booths

Taylor Kerns

On an October afternoon outside the Acme grocery store on Main Street in Kent, windbreaker zipped and clipboard in hand, Kathy Wilen was lied to. 

“Are you registered to vote?”

“Yep.” 

“Are you registered to vote?” 

“Yeah.”

“Are you registered to vote?”

“Yes, thanks.” 

For over an hour, person after person walked by Wilen and dismissed her with a quick affirmation. Many of them, she said, were young people.

In 2014, 59 percent of American adults were registered to vote, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For 18-to-24-year-olds it was 39 percent. 

“Oh,” Wilen said. “They’re lying to me.”

She reckoned four out of five people she asked told her they’re already registered.

Wilen, who retired from Kent City Schools 15 years ago, has registered voters in Kent for the past three years. She signed up one voter that day.

Wilen said it’s a shame that young voters have been the least active of any age group, consistently showing the lowest turnout in national elections.

“They’ve got their whole lives to go through yet,” she said. “They’ve got to get the country right for themselves.”

Voter participation has been trending down since the 1960s for all age groups, with the exception of those 65 and older. Eighteen to 24-year-old voter turnout spiked in 1992, when Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton defeated incumbent Republican president George H.W. Bush.

According to a 2016 national exit poll ­— the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement — millennial voters strongly favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over eventual winner and Republican Donald Trump. Bloomberg also reported a decline in young voter turnout in key swing states like Florida and North Carolina.

The millennial vote is an important one: According to the same Bloomberg report, if only millennials voted in this election, Clinton would have cruised to a 473-32 win in the electoral college.

Ohio’s young voters truly showed up in force in 2008, when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won a narrower victory over Arizonia Sen. John McCain. That year, 56 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds in Ohio voted, moving past the national youth average by 12 points, but still failing to represent themselves at the same rate as the general population, 58 percent.

Young Ohioans weren’t as engaged during the 2012 presidential election: 44 percent between the ages of 18 and 24 voted. The state still beat the national average for the age range that year — nationwide, only 38 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted — but fell short of the national total across all age ranges, 57 percent.

And those are presidential years. Midterm elections have an even lower turnout. In 2014, only 12 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds in Ohio voted. Across the board, it was the lowest turnout since World War II.

But there’s a pattern here. When young people bother to vote, they tend to vote Democrat.

“I think to get people to vote, you need to appeal to their issues, the issues they have in their own lives,” said Terrie Nielsen, deputy director of the Portage County Board of Elections.

Issues prevalent in the lives of young people, issues like a changing global climate and the high cost of college education, are often cornerstones of Democratic campaigns.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders enjoyed wild popularity with young voters in the Democratic primaries. He received the most millennial votes by a long shot, winning 70 percent of votes cast by people under 30 — young people preferred his apparent authenticity and integrity to Clinton’s polish and experience, according to research by the Harvard Institute of Politics.

But, because young people don’t vote as much as other groups, that 70 percent of under-30 votes only counted for 17 percent of the total votes cast in the Democratic primary election. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the nomination. 

Even if it isn’t Sanders, though, it seems young people want a Democrat as president. Earlier this year, Harvard surveyed more than 3,000 18 to 29-year-olds and found that three in five would prefer a Democrat in the Oval Office.

Young Republicans also exist, of course. The same Harvard survey found one in three 18 to 29-year-olds wanted a member of the GOP to win this November, though they’re not necessarily thrilled by the prospect of a President Trump: “generic Republican” polled eight points higher.

“Some of them don’t think it’s that important,” Wilen said, “or what they have to say isn’t important.”

Taylor Kerns is a contributor to The Kent Stater, contact him at [email protected]