(Photo by Flickr user Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, used under a Creative Commons license)
This is part of "Democracy" month of the Generocity Editorial Calendar. Find the series here.
Millennials are notably socially conscious. They’re the digital generation, connected at all times to each other and the world. Yet, somehow, they suck at engaging with the democratic process.
Despite a history of hype generated by organizations such as Rock the Vote and despite the general success of voter registration drives, data shows a high majority of millennials just aren’t getting to the polls.
Especially on a local level.
Last spring in Philadelphia, a city with 321,342 registered millennials, only 38,686 — a whopping 12 percent — showed up at the polls to cast their vote in the mayoral primary.
Why? Part of the reason is that millennials are super mobile. More than a third of voters under the age of 30 are moving every two years, and most don’t have landlines. That’s way too frequent of a rate for antiquated-yet-trustworthy techniques like phone banking and door-to-door canvassing.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 were the least likely to be contacted by a campaign by home visit, mail, phone, email or text message.
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“Once you actually get a hold of young people, they are about as responsive to most encouragement to vote as older people,” said Temple University political science professor David Nickerson. “The trick, it turns out, is that it’s really hard to get a hold of young people.”
Young voters who were contacted by campaigns by phones were about three percentage points more likely to vote.
In the early 2000s while working with voter engagement organization Youth Vote, Nickerson and company found that young voters who were contacted by campaigns by phones were about three percentage points more likely to vote.
It may be a small bump, but every percentage point counts in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania, where even small shifts in millennial voter turnout can turn the tide of an election.
The problem: Campaigns and the legislation that surrounds them just haven’t quite caught up with the times. There’s no centralized list that can connect campaigns to individual millennial voters through the lines of communication they use most frequently, said Nickerson, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“We have to meet young people where they are, which is online, to get people registered to vote,” Rock the Vote president Ashley Spillane told Fusion.
To date, online voter registration is only offered by 31 states and Washington, D.C. And while 15 states offer “same day registration” allowing citizens to register at the polls, only five states currently offer automatic registration.
Still, the disparity between registered voters and voter turnout is alarming, and the rates have gotten significantly worse since the 1960s. Closing that gap was part of Nickerson’s job as the Obama campaign’s “director of experiments” in 2012.
“If I were a funder making decisions, I would be focusing my attention on lobbying and putting research around institutional reforms that can get young people and anyone who is mobile and not wholly engaged in the political process [to vote],” said Nickerson.
Some funders like the Knight Foundation have backed innovative projects to increase voter turnout through programs such as the upcoming Citizen University initiative which will be spearheaded local in partnership with civic institution Committee of Seventy, and through projects such as Knight Cities Challenge winner Next Stop: Democracy!
Only 12 percent of Philadelphian millennials showed up at the polls to cast their vote in last year's mayoral primary.
Next Stop: Democracy!, a brainchild of local millennial engagement pro (and, full disclosure, Generocity columnist) Lansie Sylvia, is a project that uses public art to make voter engagement more enjoyable in Philadelphia.
The project is by no means an attempt at making a systemic change. Next Stop: Democracy!’s goal wasn’t even necessarily to increase voter turnout, but to make polling places shine a bit brighter and keep people hanging around.
As we’ve noted before, the project was not found to increase the likelihood of a person voting. If anything, it’s a voter retainment method that prevents voters from checking out of a system mobbed with money and media, said Sylvia. If Next Stop: Democracy!’s goal was to foster community around voter engagement, then the project has been successful.
“If you don’t feel like you’re part of a community, you don’t feel like anything you do positively or negatively impacts that community. It really depends on feeling like what you do matters. That’s a really big problem to fix,” said Sylvia.
Cultivating that culture of voting is necessary for increasing voter turnout. That’s why door-to-door canvassing, snail mail and phone banking work so well.
“All of that stuff works because it pulls people back into remembering they’re part of a community,” she said. “That how they engage civically does impact other people.”
It’s hard to create that culture from scratch, said Nickerson. Yet, a lot of organizations — Rock the Vote included — focus on messaging. Remember the celebrity-ridden Vote or Die campaign? (Fun fact: Former Vote or Die spokesperson Sean Combs is one of those people who “checked out” of the system). But retooling messaging isn’t going to always move the needle.
“A lot of very smart people spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to message to young people to get them engaged in politics, and I don’t think messaging is the problem,” said Nickerson. Messaging, he said, depends largely on capturing the right zeitgeist of whatever group is being targeted.
"It’s a broader cultural thing of having people in your circle act like this something that people like us do."
“It’s a broader cultural thing of having people in your circle act like this something that people like ‘us’ do,'” he said.
Think about it like this: It’s hard enough for canvassers to reach people at their homes, said Nickerson. They might not answer the door for a stranger, but they’re much more likely to answer if it’s a neighbor knocking.
That’s the cultural shift millennial-led nonprofit Young Involved Philadelphia champions consistently through events like this past spring’s City Council Candidate Convention and Ward 101. And while those events have had high turnout rates, said YIP VP and Keep Philadelphia Beautiful Executive Director Michelle Feldman, it’s still hard to know for sure how much impact they have had on actual voter turnout.
“Have we moved the needle in terms of young people in Philadelphia voting through those efforts? We can’t say that,” Feldman said. “For YIP it’s a different ballgame. We just want to get people to get out and vote. All of the goals you set before you even start this work are rooted in what’s the overarching goal — is it that 51 percent of people who come out to vote on election day? For us, it’s getting folks out to the polls who are in that young demographic and getting them to think of voting as a habit.”
Citizens are not always bombarded by local and community news, said Feldman. What’s happening on a voters’ block and what’s happening in City Hall aren’t always as apparent to them as the goings-on in D.C.
But there’s a tempting correlation, according to Nickerson.
“If you get people to vote in high profile elections, there’s pretty good evidence that voting is habit forming,” he said. “If you vote in one election, you’re more likely to vote in subsequent elections.”
In a sense, voting can be like the allegorical Kool-Aid. All you need is that first sip.
“We say this a lot: It’s easier to get people to come out to vote for or against a candidate than it is to ask folks to get out and vote,” said Feldman. “It’s a bit harder of an ask because people are passionate about candidates.”
Can 2016’s presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump incite enough passion to get millennials to the polls, or will the sense of apathy that surrounds Sisyphean participation in a rigged system prevail?
More importantly for Philadelphia, how will voter turnout in November’s general election impact future local elections?-30-
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