A recent podcast by The Economist asserted that young people do not turn out in non-Presidential years because they do not have "skin in the game." They're wrong. We most certainly do. While there is recorded disinvestment in midterm elections by young people, many factors contribute to lower youth turnout in midterm elections: unstable voting addresses, ill-targeting by campaign teams, and voter access restrictions, to name a few.
However, a hard reality is often overlooked: This generation wants to find meaningful ways of democratic participation. We have disengaged from our crumbling civic institutions; yet, we have the energy and ideas to rebuild them. The midterm election was the opposite of the kind of politics we value; there were no new ideas, endless fear-mongering, and blaming the other for the political challenges our country faces, not to mention increased restrictions on voting in many key states. As a result, voters between the ages of 18 to 29 voted at a very low rate on Nov. 4. With this kind of atmosphere roiling in our electoral process, it is no wonder we do not see voting as a meaningful avenue of participation, even though we should.
There was a bright spot in this past election. When big issues and big ideas were on the ballot, voters turned out in higher numbers. The Center for Civic Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement estimates a five-percentage point increase over the national youth turnout average in states with competitive ballot initiatives. When on the ballot at the state and local level, ideas including paid sick leave, minimum wage, and background checks, were a powerful motivator for participation.
Americans have opinions on the direction of this country and are passionate about ideas and solutions to move us forward. However, our political leaders do not focus enough on building opportunities for everyday people to do this in a meaningful way before the elections. Their ask is always "to vote" instead of "to engage." Thus, we end up with elections that are often just bickering and pandering to a politically active base rather than a real debate about policy. Policy debates should happen in communities across the country every year, not just once every four years. Voting should be the culminating act of voicing an opinion in our political participation, not a fight over partisan power.
As the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, a 120-chapter nationwide student policy organization, I work everyday with young people who engage in a participatory form of politics and see how it drives their engagement. Students in our network run participatory discussions on their campuses, they research and propose local policy ideas, and they connect to stakeholders around their schools. Participation is a meaningful part of their lives and voting is one of the ways they inject their voice into decision-making in government.
Ultimately, the post-election question for youth participation is not "How do we turnout more young people by 2016?" But, "How do we involve more young people in civic life?" Millennials are not just looking to be brought to the polls; we want to be involved in the process.