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Why It’s Time To Take Young, Non-Partisan Voters Seriously

Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place in Billings, Mont., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.

CREDIT: AP/Jae C. Hong.

The Census Bureau projects that there will be 75.3 million Millennials by the end of 2015, making them the biggest, most diverse generation ever. With these numbers in mind, it is without a doubt that Millennials have the ability to make a major impact on the nation and its politics.  Yet, Millennials are constantly torn down for their participation in politics, being labeled names such as “lazy,” “narcissistic,” and of course, “un-civically engaged.”

It’s true that Millennials’ voting records pale in comparison to past generations. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots and only 46.7 percent of young people said they were registered to vote—the lowest numbers on both fronts in the past 40 years.

And yet, instead of concluding that Millennials are lazy or apathetic toward politics, maybe it’s time to challenge our assumption that Millennials are the problem. Could our political system simply be ill-suited for political participation from Millennials?

According to a recent survey done by the Harvard University Institute of Politics, over 40 percent of Millennials do not identify themselves within the two-party system.  Similarly, a study done by the Pew Research Center found that Millennials (current 18- to 33-year-olds) are by far the generation most likely to be independents (48 percent), leaving all other generations far behind. With the number of young non-partisans growing, it is abundantly clear now that this is not just a rebellious “phase”— it is here to stay.

So, What’s The Deal With Non-Partisans?

Shockingly, only 7 percent of the people who identify as independents are truly non-partisan and do not show ideological preferences one way or the other. Though 39 percent of voters identify as non-partisan, with an even higher proportion of Millennials identifying as such, most of these proclaimed “independents” do in fact “lean” conservative or liberal. As the Daily Kos reported, “Most independents have distinct ideological preferences but still can’t bring themselves to fully associate with the party they gravitate toward (often, apparently, because the party isn’t pure enough for them, rather than because it’s too extreme for them).”

Millennials And The Importance Of Social Issues

The Millennial generation is decidedly different than previous generations.

It’s more liberal and progressive than older generations and its central values have shifted in comparison to past generations. As a comprehensive Pew Research study showed, Millennials possess significantly different social ideologies than the generations before them, with the majority of them supporting same-sex marriage, legalizing marijuana, immigration reform, pro-choice positions, and a bigger government with more public services rather than a smaller government with fewer public services. Additionally, Millennials are the most likely generation to self-identify as supporters of LGBTQ rights, and are the least likely to self-identify as “a patriotic person,” “a religious person,” or “an environmentalist.”

These distinctive values connected to the Millennial generation are not necessarily right or wrong, but they are different. By not addressing, adapting, or realizing these differences, we may be systematically undervaluing the issues that matter to young people and young people themselves. By consequence, we set young people up to appear “apathetic” and “un-civically engaged” from political discourse and participation. If the political system doesn’t care about young people, why should young people care about the political system?

Re-Connecting Potential 

Many people attribute the rise of non-partisans to the increase of polarization in Washington and politics more generally. As Linda Killian, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents,” discusses, the negative change in tone over polarization and failed efforts of bipartisanship during the last couple of years may have contributed to the lack of party affiliation among young Americans and the rise of “hyperpartisanship.” Additionally, a Pew survey also showed that two-thirds of non-partisan voters identify as independent because they believe “both parties care more about special interests than about average Americans.”

There is some truth in the idea that many young non-partisans are deeply frustrated with the reality of mainstream political parties and discourse. At the end of the day, however, the larger issue still remains how to respect and pay attention to the issues that matter to them in hopes of re-connecting them to the electoral process.

Listening to young non-partisans would not only engage many previously disenchanted Millennials in the political process, it would also have a major impact on the elections and voter turnout. Going back to the polls, with only 19.9 percent of young people voting in the 2014 midterm elections and over 40 percent of Millennials identifying as non-partisan, America could have the potential to almost double voter turnout among young people based on this demographic of young non-partisans alone.

While voter turnout among independents is typically much lower than it is among partisan voters, it could be in part because they are often not even granted the same voting opportunities. For example as the Washington Post writes: “…In more than half of the country, independents are not permitted to vote in primaries, so they have no say in the candidates selected in the general election. It’s no surprise, then, that they are usually less satisfied with their candidate choices than partisan voters are.”

There is nothing wrong with wanting to think outside of the box when it comes to politics. With technology and other advances, it is easier now than ever for young people to customize their own political diets and shape their own perspective, opting to support certain issues, policies, or candidates without throwing support for parties as a whole.

It is time for America to truly realize that young people are not only the future of the country, but they are the present too. By not listening to the rising group of young people who identify as non-partisan, the very core of American democracy is shaken. With record low voter turnout among young people, every young person casting a ballot should be encouraged to go out and vote, regardless of what box they did or did not check under party affiliation.

Jazmin Kay is a reporter for Generation Progress, covering voting rights and civic engagement. Follow her on Twitter at @jazminlkay.

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