Skip to main content

WBEZ News

Turn out for what? Will young voters make it to the polls, or stay home as usual?

Cycle after cycle, voter turnout among young people trends especially low. For example, in the last midterm election, fewer than a quarter of eligible 18 to 29 year olds cast ballots.

OK, so we are talking about the generation that invented the selfie. But young people do care about more than just themselves; but, they say, no one ever asks for their input.

Eve Rips is the Midwest Director of the Young Invincibles. The national organization works to engage young adults on issues like higher education, healthcare and employment. And it made a point of asking young people for their thoughts.

“We heard a lot about skyrocketing tuition, about violence on the streets, we heard time and again from young adults whose peers had been exposed to violence and significant trauma. We heard constantly about high rates of youth unemployment. We heard from people scared about not living up to their parents standard of living,” Rips explained.  

And young people in Illinois, it turns out, are very happy to talk the talk…they tend not to walk the walk. A study on civic health from the McCormick Foundation found that while a quarter of Illinois Millennials engage in weekly political discussions, they were at the the bottom of the pack when it came to voting regularly. Like, three from the bottom.

Democratic political consultant Tom Bowen said sometimes low turnout is a measure of the issues that are out there; certain groups are highly attuned to the issues that a candidate can appeal to.

“There’s not very many not very many messages about Medicare and Social Security that are going to entice young voters into the electorate,” Bowen explained.

It’s easy to see how it might be a struggle to make those particular issues sexy. Young people tend not to think about their retirement or long-term health until it’s staring them right in the face.

“Most of the time what brings young voters into the electorate is they become parents and they care about schools. Schools are a pretty motivating local issue that tends to get people to pay attention to what their government is doing,” said Bowen.

Campaigns are faced with limited time and resources -- and they have to focus on the folks they know are going to be there.

And, if we’re honest with ourselves, young people -- Millennials like this reporter -- we’re lazy. That’s right, the most educated generation in history is sitting at home, avoiding joining the workforce because -- we’re entitled narcissists. Or, at least that’s the stereotype.

It’s the same old song. But maybe if you could get Lil Jon to sing it, while applying some good, old-fashioned peer pressure...junior would get off the couch.

According to political psychologist Jon Krosnick, social pressure is a very effective tool in elections. He said voter turnout is contagious.

“At one level, participating in an election might seem like an irrational act -- because any one individual is certainly not likely to have any meaningful impact on the outcome of any election. But, in fact, each person’s action can be magnified,” Krosnick explained.

By voting -- and letting others know that you voted -- you actually increase the likelihood that other people will vote.

But pollster Gregg Durham said the easier, surer thing … is to make a play for mom.  

Durham said suburban women tipped the dead-even scales for Governor Pat Quinn four years ago when they failed to turn out for Bill Brady. And this year’s governor’s race is just as tight.

“There’s no group that they say don’t worry about them, we can’t get enough of them. If you have the wherewithal you go after every vote you can. However, you go after the low-hanging fruit first...and the young voter is a tough harvest,” Durham explained.

According to Durham, if just three more people had voted in each precinct in 2010, Illinois would probably be talking about Brady’s re-election.

Every vote really does count. And there are young people out there, trying to get their peers to the polls. People like Connie C. Luo, a field organizer with Chicago Votes.

“It’s something like an intervention to the cycle of oppression, to the cycle of apathy, that systemically has prevented young people from raising their voice. And so, the best way to do that is to direct one-on-one intervention, by being out in the field, by targeting people who need to register, who need to vote the most...that way we can move forward,” Luo said.

Chicago Votes has registered over 15,000 young people with its get-out-the-vote campaign this year, bringing their coalition’s total to over 115,000. Parades to the polls have been planned to make sure that those registered actually make it to the polls on Tuesday.

If they do, it will definitely matter. It may even shape the future.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X