Framing the Problem: Lack of Young People in Politics
By Nick Marzano
There is a lack of engagement in Philly politics on the part of young people. Two big, simple facts back that up.
The Big, Simple Facts Section
Fact 1: 18-29 year-old voter turnout has been abysmally low in primaries and non-presidential general elections.
Former YIP President and bona fide political smarty-pants, Josh McNeil, wrote the following and I, recognizing his sagacity and my own laziness, will simply cut-and-paste it here:
According to recent studies from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia’s population of 20-35 year olds grew from 20% to 26% in the last decade, accounting for all of the city’s population growth. Although citizens between the ages of 18 and 29 are 24.9% of Philadelphia’s eligible voters, they vote at a much lower percentage than do older citizens in most elections.
In the 2010 general election, 28.9% of Philadelphians between the ages of 18 and 29 voted, while Philadelphians aged 30 and older voted at 44.2%.
Even worse, in the 2011 primary, only 7.8% of young voters went to the polls, whereas older generations voted at 28.3%.
But in 2012, young voters turned out at a higher rate than their elders: 63.7% of young citizens voted, compared to 62.5% for older citizens.
The visibility of the 2012 presidential election made it clear to young people what was at stake and why their vote mattered. Young Involved Philadelphia plans to give young voters valuable information in the less publicized, but equally important, elections of 2014 and 2015.
In response to the obvious need to reach out to young voters in non-presidential elections, YIP will bring sorely needed attention to local elections by:
+Partnering with Committee of 70 and media outlets to provide young voters with approachable, accessible information about muddy local politics
+Hosting public events to expand reach beyond our current membership; and
+Using proven direct engagement voter registration and get out the vote strategies.
We think it’s a good start. We’re willing to bet that a percentage of the young population would be more engaged in politics if a little light were shed on it. In February 2013 YIP hosted “Ward System 101”, with WHYY’s Dave Davies, Pat Christmas from the Committee of 70, then-Director of Federal Affairs Terry Gillen, and City Commissioner Stephanie Singer. That night 150 people—most under the age of 30—crammed into Ladder 15 to learn about the 66-headed beast that is Philly’s Ward system: how it works, how to run in your division, and what that all really means in the context of notorious political incest and inside baseball. We know that at least ten young people, including me, left ready to run for committeeperson in their ward. All ten of us won.
Which is not to say it was so easy for all young committeeperson candidates. Reformer TJ Hurst got shut down in the 30th Ward, and another candidate reported to me that the local ward leader entered into his home uninvited to tell him he had no future in area politics. So, lack of information is part of the problem, but not all of it.
Which leads us to our second simple fact…
Fact 2: Number of City Councilpersons under 40 = Zero.
As more brave souls step up to represent the growing young population, will millennials come out to vote for their own? Maybe – if those would-be pols are qualified. It’s probably safe to say, especially if young voters don’t turn out in support, that those young leaders will face enormous pressure to fall in line with the insidious status quo.
The Inevitable Paragraph of Speculation
In both cases—getting out information and getting more young leaders to run—there is ground to be gained. I don’t believe, however, we’re talking about the sort of progress that pulls 64% young voter turnout in a non-presidential general election, let alone a primary. Yes, we need access to information that cuts through the bullshit, and we need some young candidates who support a transparent system.
But there’s something else missing in local elections: a pulse. Handy literature, door knocking, and a 24-hours news cycle weren’t the only things that got out the young vote in 2008 and 2012. “Hope” and “Change” told a quick story about what was at stake, and what might be possible. Maybe those aren’t the same emotional buttons we need to press on for local elections, but it’s probably fair to say we could use something more visceral and more viral than a voter resource guide and some barking about a broken system. It’s going to take an emotional appeal to convince folks that A) it’s worth their effort, and B) now is the time. Obama’s message was well honed, well funded, and issued outward from the candidate, but we know that’s not the only recipe for moving people to action.
Egregious Speculation, or In Which Nick Goes Off the YIP Reservation
There’s another, more cynical way to frame this problem. Maybe the issue isn’t a lack of information, or young candidates, or an inspirational campaign, but that we think of elections as a single day with a single type of outcome: candidates win or lose. It’s the sort of thinking that keeps some of us waiting for those perfect candidates and dare-to-be-great election moments. That keeps us from stepping into the booth unless we thoroughly understand our options. Or causes that little pang of guilt when we don an “I Voted” sticker, even though we recognized less than 20% of names on the ballot. Maybe we need to shed that guilt and start voting a little more recklessly.
In fact, every Election Day has at least two outcomes for voters: a candidate outcome and a demographic outcome. Yes, your candidate could get elected, and that’s a win for you as a constituent in a way. But even if your candidate loses, you still win if a ton of people in your demographic also voted. While we like to think of votes for a specific candidate as an expression of the will of the people, total voter turnout is a census count that tells which people are watching. For young people to start scoring this outcome, it may not matter a damn bit who we vote for.
When young people vote in droves, elected candidates carry an awareness into the next election that millennial voters could cost them their job. That’s a very personal thing, and might explain why few in the current establishment spend time encouraging non-voters to vote. Another group of voters means another set of needs to pay attention to. For as much lip service as they may pay to young people, a silent majority requires zero extra effort from a candidate between elections.
I don’t thinks a results-be-damned focus on young voter turnout is a great lasting strategy for a responsible citizenry or effective government, but it’s one way to reframe the problem in the short-term. If we really want our vote to be courted, maybe young people need to start voting more casually and irresponsibly. Then watch the establishment trip over itself to rein us in.
The views and opinions stated in this post are the author’s alone and do not reflect the policy or opinion of Young Involved Philadelphia, Inc. Young Involved Philadelphia is not responsible for the accuracy of anything stated above. Young Involved Philadelphia does not necessarily endorse any of the statements made above. Seriously, don’t quote YIP on this – that’s just Nick talking.