The general perception of young voters is that they are largely detached from politics and thus have no interest and don’t participate. Yet, the largest segment of the voting population — Generation Y — and the generation that follows, Gen Z, could completely change the way elections, and by extension politics, are conducted in the US.
Public opinion polling shows broad dissatisfaction with the current two-party political structure:
An overwhelming majority of Americans believe the two major parties are doing such a poor job that a third party option is needed. As such, most US voters want a political environment where elected officials put the public’s interests above their own self interest and the private, gain-seeking interests of their parties and moneyed-interests.
It is becoming much more apparent to voters that the incentives are badly skewed away from their favor as hyper-polarization and policy paralysis define national politics. And, the generations that have grown up experiencing the worst that the two-party duopoly has to offer want change, and are the biggest factors in this move away from the major parties.
Maybe We Should Call Them Generation “I”
Pew Research found back in 2014 that approximately half of Generation Y, colloquially known as the Millennial generation, identified as independent of the Republican and Democratic Parties, which at the time was at the highest level of political dissatisfaction of any generation recorded in a quarter of a century.
Fast forward three years and a NBC News/GenForward poll found that 71% of Millennials believed the US needed more viable options than just the Republican and Democratic Parties, because neither were serving the interests of the American people, which in turn bolstered overall support for more competition and better elections among US voters at-large.
During the same time period, the US also saw exponential growth in the nonpartisan reform movements to transform the US political process into one that promoted competition, accountability, fairness, openness, and transparency. This is hardly a coincidence.
Gen Z seems to have an even greater propensity to lean independent. PBS reported in October 2020 that members of the youngest generation to reach voting age are “more diverse, more politically engaged and less bound by political party labels” — an analysis offered by Rutgers associate research professor Elizabeth Matto.
“It is a generation that cares about public problems, wants to solve public problems, and most importantly, sees politics or the use of political institutions as a way to solve those problems,” said Matto.
This is important to note because Gen Z, more than any other generation according to multiple studies, including Pew Research, wants to see the government do more to solve problems. However, Millennials and Gen Zers have also grown up in an era where problem solving has taken a backseat to partisan gamesmanship.
“The parties like to take ownership of this issue or that issue or this is the right answer or that is the right answer, and they often use those issues to make enemies out of each other, reducing candidates and elections into red squares vs blue squares,” says Julia Hemsworth, Youth Outreach Coordinator for IndependentVoting.org.
“I find that for people of my generation, that doesn’t really work for us, because we end up wanting to vote for the issues, not people just because they are connected to the party.”
Hemsworth, along with other young civic activists, discussed young voters’ aversion to party politics during a virtual event hosted by the Open Primaries Education Fund titled “Gen Z and the Rejection of Party Politics.”
“I don’t know if effective, long-standing solutions are possible in a system that takes advantage of these issues for essentially marketing purposes. The longer that issue is drawn out the longer the party can use that platform,” added Hemsworth.
The Apathy Stigma
Despite research showing strong motivation to participate, young voters still largely face a negative stigma: They don’t care and won’t vote. Historically, voters between the ages of 18-30 have a low voting track record, and this dates back several decades.
Gen Y has more than enough familiarity with these negative perceptions from older voters:
“Millennials are lazy, entitled, selfish, and don’t vote.”
The challenge for young civic engagement groups and activists has long been how to get more members of their generation to be active within the political landscape and show up at the polls to vote. Mainstream political commentators blame low voting participation on apathy, and election cycle after election cycle it is the go-to scarlet letter pinned on an entire generation of voters
This prompts the question: Why are young voters so apathetic? Why don’t they care about the economic and sociopolitical problems facing the country?
But what if apathy wasn’t the problem? What if this narrative is merely an attempt to brand young voters collectively with something that, as Andrew Smith wrote for the Centrist Project (now Unite America) in 2015, is meant to shift the root cause of social and economic problems that affect young voters away from the real culprit?
Smith wrote an opinion piece that was shared on IVN.us (now archived), arguing that the lack of voter participation among Gen Y wasn’t because Millennials didn’t care about the severe economic woes they faced. This was, however, a generation that grew up witnessing zero action and zero accountability in government.
“For many Millennials, the first political event they engaged in was the 2000 presidential election, in which the candidate with the highest popular vote lost,” he wrote.
“What followed was over a decade of war and growing partisanship. In 2008, Millennials flocked to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, believing in the power to change America. Instead, they received a harsh lesson in bitter partisanship and Washington gridlock.”
Gen Z shares a similar story. Their first presidential election was in 2016, which again saw the candidate with the largest vote count lose and was an election marred by deep-seated division between two sides, with one side chanting “Lock her up” and the other shouting “deplorables.”
Young voters have become largely cynical in the electoral process and political institutions to deliver results, despite a desire to see more from these institutions. And, there is research data to back this up.
In 2020, FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos conducted a survey of 8,000 Americans, in which they found voting eligible Americans between 18 and 34 were less likely to have faith in the political system.
“I guess I just don’t think that one person’s vote can swing an election,” FiveThirtyEight quoted one young voter who also indicated that he wouldn’t vote for president in 2020 because of “moral objections to both candidates.”
The system tells voters they have two options and only two options –pick one or don’t vote. So, is it really a surprise that so many people don’t vote more regularly? And, does it sound like this has anything to do with apathy?
FiveThirtyEight also found that many of the Americans they surveyed had inconsistent voting records and often only voted when they felt their vote would make a difference or if the stakes were too high, as many voters saw the 2020 elections.
The 2020 presidential election was also unique in that most states reduced the barriers to ballot access to vote. Most states made it easier for voters to qualify for absentee or mail-in ballots and many expanded early voting periods in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is worth noting that barriers to ballot access was also a consistent theme FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos found among voters whose voting records indicated they were generally “nonvoters” or “sometimes voters,” and the decision to vote would be determined by how a person viewed navigating the electoral system in a given year.
“In our survey, almost one-quarter (22 percent) of young people said that when they didn’t end up casting a ballot, they had actually wanted to but couldn’t,” wrote FiveThirtyEight.
So, to recap:
- When voters feel there is an opportunity for change or that their voice will matter, they turn out in historic numbers (like in 2008 and 2020);
- Barriers to the ballot and participation often prevent voters who would like to vote from voting; and
- Young voters, despite actively wanting to see problems solved, largely feel cynical about a political system they know is not going to deliver for them because it was designed not to deliver for them.
“The disconnect between [young voters’] civic identity and their voting behavior is deeply indicative of how broken our electoral system is,” says Gary Sheng, Co-Founder and COO of Civics Unplugged, who was another featured panelist at Open Primaries’ Gen Z event.
“They don’t feel like they have a way to channel their civic aspirations into the ballot, cause they know — judging from their entire lives but also studying history — they’ve seen that our political system does not put the best people forward.”
Sheng says that as a result younger Millennials, like himself, and young voters in general look for different, and less visible, avenues by which they could possibly affect change. He said the workplace was an example of this.
“Just a few years ago there was a Google walkout to protest gender discrimination, and other things people didn’t think were going well inside Google,” he said.
The nation has also witnessed members of Gen Y and Z start national movements on climate change, gun violence, and rally their support behind young political newcomers who were not the typical rank-and-file partisan candidates and brought community-focused solutions to the table.
These are not generations marred by apathy. These are generations who want change, who want to make a difference, and they are in greater numbers understanding that the only way to effect change in US politics is through comprehensive systemic reform in our elections.
“Unless there is a path forward to channel [civic engagement] productively into the political system, we are going to keep seeing these disparities,” Sheng added, referring to the gap between civic activism and voter turnout among young voters.
Will Young Voters End the Two-Party Duopoly?
Sheng noted during the Open Primaries event that finding a path to greater representation and accountability is a high priority for civic engagement groups that focus on bolstering the voices of young voters — which as stated above is largely not beholden to party labels.
“Both parties are colluding to prevent independent thought from being translated into actual political power,” he said.
Sheng’s organization, Civics Unplugged, is a nonpartisan social enterprise committed to bringing together and empowering Gen Z leaders who want to improve the future of democracy. Ifs efforts have garnered the attention and support of public figures like Andrew Yang and celebrities like Dwayne Johnson.
“We illuminate the dysfunction of our political system so it becomes part of young people’s civic aspirations to do something about it,” said Sheng.
And Civics Unplugged is far from alone. The Open Primaries event also served as the official launch of the national Students for Open Primaries, which will help bolster needed primary reform in several states while getting young people involved in efforts to improve US elections.
The co-directors of Students for Open Primaries, Elena Ashburn and Dariel Cruz Rodriguez, are both Founding Fellows of Civics Unplugged. Dariel is also the group’s social media coordinator and Elena hosts its podcast, “Mission Control 2030: The Voice of Civics Unplugged.”
Students for Open Primaries initially emerged in Florida during the campaign to enact Amendment 3, which would have implemented nonpartisan open primaries for state executive and legislative races.
Dariel said one thing he learned during the campaign was that “state politics is like a ballgame with no rules.”
“Independents are not allowed to pick who gets involved with state politics as far as who is on their general election ballot,” he said. “Elena and I both saw foul balls thrown at us by the political parties that seriously made us reconsider how we viewed the parties.”
The Republican and Democratic Parties in Florida both opposed moving from a closed primary system, where they had the biggest advantage in deciding who gets elected, to a nonpartisan system that would level the playing field for all voters, including the 3.8 million registered unaffiliated voters, from the onset of the electoral process.
The amendment had broad support in Florida and garnered 57% of the vote in the 2020 election. However, due to how the state legislature has raised the bar on passing voter-driven constitutional amendments, it wasn’t enough to pass.
“The overall experience pulled me closer to the open primaries movement because I now believe we cannot make meaningful change in how our representative democracy works without letting all voters vote, which is why Elena and I decided to take this fight nationally,” added Dariel.
People often don’t realize the critical importance of primary elections, especially the role they play on the incentives model of the current US political system. In most cases, elected officials’ biggest concern is not a challenge to their seat in the general election, but in a party primary.
“Once just a noun, ‘primary’ has become the most powerful verb in American politics,” author and election reform leader Katherine Gehl writes in an op-ed for CNN.com.
“The threat of getting ‘primaried’ is wielded early and often by party leaders to keep their conferences in line. Republicans who have challenged the GOP’s new orthodoxy are racking up primary threats as fast as you can refresh Twitter. Across the aisle, the progressive left attacks fellow Democrats who seek compromise.”
Gehl also notes that it doesn’t even take threats nor an actual challenger to push an elected official so far to the left or the right that they absolutely refuse to work with the “other side.” The “treat of the primary,” she says, “is baked into the calculus of almost every decision they make.”
Read that again: “The threat of the primary is baked into the calculus of almost every decision they make.”
And, the partisan primaries, particularly closed and semi-closed systems, are used to keep voters in line. Join a party or don’t vote, and if voters don’t join a party then they are stuck with whomever the parties give them because from the onset of the electoral process the system is designed to serve the parties — not voters.
For advocates of the status quo, which tend to be members and leaders of the major parties, conditioning the right to an equal vote on joining a private political party doesn’t seem like a big deal, but neither party can claim to be champions of voting rights or election integrity as long as they believe they are entitled to elections and the process must serve them, first — parties who only care about who wins and who loses.
“Half of the younger generations of voters tend to be politically independent because they don’t want to attach themselves to a party,” said Elena Ashburn.
“If we open up the primaries we are allowing these generations who do not want to attach themselves to increasingly polarizing and extreme views — they can now vote and have their opinions heard at the ballot box.”
She added that she knows young independent voters would vote in nonpartisan primaries because young voters, according to both polling data and first-hand accounts, show up when they feel they can bring change, and the starting point to effect change in elections is the primaries.
Momentum for nonpartisan election reform has never been stronger. Nonpartisan primaries passed in Alaska and St. Louis, Missouri, in 2020 and though the reform failed to reach the threshold it needed to pass in Florida, most voters said they wanted all voters to have an equal voice in elections.
Young voters want change. They want a government that will prioritize problem solving. They want to put an end to an election system that erects barriers to preserve the anti-democratic, anti-competition, and anti-accountability status quo in place for as long as possible. The question is: Will more members of Gen Y and Gen Z rise to meet the moment?
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