It’s no secret by now that when it comes to elections, the youth voter turnout is and always has been strikingly low compared to other demographics. In fact, despite the unprecedented importance of last year’s American presidential election, Millennial voter turnout was actually down in many states from elections past. Yes, even with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the primary candidates, arguably two of the most provocative people to run for president of the United States, the youth vote remained notably low. So what gives?
I know what you’re thinking. You can practically hear you grandfather now moaning about the “dang Millennials” who “just don’t give a crap about this country!” But is this really the case? Is it really that we can’t be bothered to get off the couch and into a voting booth? Or is there something more to this issue?
Low voter turnout among Millennials could be explained by the widespread sentiment that “my vote won’t matter.” If you ask a random non-voting Millennial why they chose to abstain, an unsurprising response might be “What’s the point?” In a democratic system monopolized by two elite political parties, many are understandably skeptical of the voting process. They believe that too often we have to choose between a lesser of two evils and that no matter who we vote for, our lives change one way or another. Low risk, low reward.
Incidentally, Millennials who do turn out tend to exhibit an entirely different mentality on voting. This kind of voter is brazenly passionate for a particular candidate or staunchly opposed to another and believe that every vote counts. Take Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump voters. Although their campaign platforms were dramatically different, the candidates were similar in one big way: they inspired people to vote. Sanders had a massive following of Millennial voters in the Democratic Primary Elections. Likewise, exit polls reported a record turnout in the Republican race. Finally, in the General Election, more than half of first-time voters came out for Hillary Clinton, likely in opposition to Trump rather than strong support for Clinton.
That fact is, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gave Millennials a reason to vote. Trump might have been crazy, but he was different. Sanders might have been the underdog, but he offered tangible progressive solutions. Sanders and Trump didn’t just fan the progressive and and conservative flames in America, they doused them in kerosene.
Many of us fall into one these categories: those who are passionate about a particular candidate and those who are entirely apathetic about the political system. As counterintuitive as sounds, Millennials could be simultaneously the most civically engaged and utterly passive generation in America. A similar dynamic might be noticed across the pond.
In Great Britain, Millennials had by far the lowest turnout in last summer’s EU referendum, according to the Guardian. Most young Brits did not expect their votes to make a difference. However, research suggests that if Millennial turnout had been stronger in both the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, results would have likely been different.
In France, overall voter turnout is generally stronger than the United States. However, the Millennial vote still lags behind. Looking ahead to this year’s French presidential election, the question is not how Millennials will vote, but if they will vote. Are the candidates sufficiently compelling? Or will voter turnout once again suffer from apathy over establishment candidates who don’t offer significant change?
Although Marine Le Pen is the most extreme candidate of the bunch, she is not exactly an outsider. She inherited leadership of the Front National, France’s most conservative and anti-immigration political party, from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. While she is seen as more moderate than her father, she could offer the very change that inspire Millennials to hit the polls. Like Trump, she’s crazy but different. She might not be the perfect candidate but at least she offers tangible change.
Of course, voting dynamics are much more nuanced than as described above. How other demographics vote, when elections are held, how informed Millennials are at a particular time, and mainstream and social media trends have heavy influence on voter turnout. But the idea that a strong Millennial vote correlates to authentically inspiring candidates shouldn’t be overlooked. As we saw twice in the past year, the millennial vote (or lack thereof) can decide an election. It just might do candidates some good to make sure this generation is getting what they want.