It’s no secret that 2016 is a year with high political stakes. This election cycle is bitter, partisan, and the country appears to be more divided than ever. With a Supreme Court vacancy that will likely be filled by the next president, it’s clear that the next President has the ability to shape policy far beyond the longevity of a four- or eight-year tenure.
Millennials will be alive the longest to experience the direct effects of Supreme Court decisions. Young people will bear the disproportionate impact from the upcoming election results, yet voting trends don’t reflect that. Voter turnout among those aged 18 to 29 in the 2012 election was just 45 percent. In 2014, the turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds was recorded at only 19.9 percent. Despite the fact that turnout is typically lower in midterm elections across age demographics, 2014 was still a historically low year for Millennial turnout. Although they have the most to potentially gain from voting, young people just aren’t turning out to the polls.
I’m part of a group of students at Wake Forest University that are working to reverse this trend. At Wake, 20 students make up a political engagement cohort known as Wake the Vote. The group began meeting as a class in the spring when they traveled to early presidential contests like the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire primaries, and the South Carolina Democratic and Republican primaries.
The program is committed to encouraging young people to be engaged in the political process—irrespective of ideology. Wake the Vote students participated in a voter registration drive in the spring and in the fall before the election will be responsible for planning multiple national issue forums that will foster discussion of policies that will impact students. During the summer, cohort members participated in the political process in any way they wanted. I chose to explore a side of the system central to policy and less focused on electoral results by working at the Center for American Progress. Many of my classmates chose to pursue opportunities working on campaigns for local or national elections and interning on Capitol Hill with their representatives. During the semester, however, students had much less choice in how they spent their time.
Wake the Vote members worked on campaigns for presidential hopefuls on both sides of the aisle, regardless of their personal political affiliations. Bleeding heart liberals spent days in Iowa working for Donald Trump, and conservative students trudged through the snow in New Hampshire canvassing for Bernie Sanders.
It was the ultimate experiment in bipartisanship: what would it be like to cross behind “enemy lines” and work for the other side? I went into the experience skeptical that I would be able to remain neutral in situations where I was working with people I disagreed with, but to my surprise I actually felt really passionately about the candidate I worked for—even though we had very different political views. My classmates had similarly enlightening experiences. Rising sophomore Carl McPhail, 20, acknowledged that it was difficult to work for someone you “fundamentally disagree” with on the issues, but ultimately McPhail says he “respected how much work [volunteers] had put into the campaign, so it really encouraged [him] to try to win over every voter that [he] talked to.”
Getting swept up into the energy of a campaign is a common thread among members of the cohort, but even in times when students aren’t working directly on campaigns, they still remain engaged in issues that impact young people. When I asked my classmates about the policies that are most pertinent for Millennials in the upcoming election, common responses included climate change, the economy, gun violence prevention, and racial tension. The most common answer? Student debt. According to rising senior Hannah Dobie, 23: “It’s all about student debt, and the cost of universities. All of these influential leaders are telling young people to go to a good university, but that opportunity is only available to a few students because of the high tuition costs. These tuition costs are not sustainable.”
Wake the Vote students recognize the necessity of getting young people engaged in politics, but acknowledge all of the possible obstacles blocking Millennials from making it to the voting booth. Rising sophomore Zachary Bynum, 19, says he is “ecstatic” an appeals court in North Carolina struck down a voter ID law that was known as one of the most restrictive in the country. The law mandated that only certain types of photo ID could be shown for access to the polls, and the law would have had a disproportionately negative impact on young people, people of color, elderly, and low-income voters. Cohort members partnered with the non-partisan Democracy North Carolina to serve as poll monitors during the North Carolina primary to ensure that everyone had unrestricted access to the ballot.
Wake the Vote traveled to the nominating conventions in July, and after two weeks of observing party pageantry, students remain committed to exploring core issues in the upcoming election.
There’s consensus that there are many policy issues that impact young people, but there is less agreement that both of the major parties are doing enough to tackle these problems and reach out to young voters. Rising sophomore Ciara Ciez, 19, says that as a Republican Millennial she identifies with the individualism and economic ideals of the Republican Party, but she feels that they could be doing more to reach out to young voters.
“I think more liberal policies on women’s issues, environmental issues, and LGBTQ issues could win Millennial voters for the Republicans,” she says.
Even though candidates ostensibly advocate for policies that help Millennials, like plans to alleviate the student debt crisis or stimulate the economy, they might not be reaching out to us on every issue.
That’s why it’s vitally important that young people remain active in the political process. As rising senior Sophia Rossel, 21, puts it: “Young people have a stake in what happens to our country. We cannot let others make choices for us—we need to actively participate and be educated and involved. If we are not vocal no one will advocate for us or even pay attention to our issues.”
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