Millennial Voters Are Paying Attention — So Why Don't More Vote?

Oct 8, 2014
Originally published on October 8, 2014 11:22 am

This story is part of the New Boom series on millennials in America.

Millennials are not getting much love from politicians this year.

The big reason for that is low expectations for turnout among young voters.

Back in 2010, the last midterm election, fewer than a quarter of voters ages 18 to 29 showed up at the polls. This year, it's looking even worse: 23 percent of voters under 30 are expected to vote. That's according to Eva Guidarini of the Harvard Institute of Politics, which studies young voters.

For many years, young voters were not expected to really care about politics, much less get involved.

That's why the group Rock the Vote was started in 1989, relying on music stars like Madonna to engage their young fans. And they're still at it, with an updated set list.

For a while, it didn't look like millennials would need much convincing. As more members of this generation reached voting age, participation among young voters rose. The peak year was 2008 (52 percent). In 2012, the turnout among voters 18 to 29 dropped to 45 percent.

On top of that, the rate of voters younger than 30 who could say with certainty that they were registered to vote fell steadily after 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2012, it hit 50 percent — the lowest number Pew has recorded going back as far as 1996.

Why the big drop? It's not like millennials aren't paying attention. Some say they're easily better informed than past generations.

Jacob Bell, a 20-year-old student at the University of Maryland, put it this way: "I can pull up Facebook in front of me and see five different articles about the next Senate race, and that's something that I know my mom's generation never had."

Ashley Spillane, the president of Rock the Vote, says it's no mystery why millennials, or any voters, would be turned off from the process: "Politics right now is really disheartening. I think it's why you see in the polls that young people are not affiliating with political parties."

(The number of millennials who consider themselves independents has shot up to 50 percent, according to Pew.)

But Spillane doesn't think that means they are apathetic. "They do care very passionately about issues that matter to them," she says. "They are getting involved at a local level. They are creating startups. They are volunteering with local organizations. They are looking to take problems on in real time and fix them," she says.

For Rock the Vote, the challenge is reaching a generation that's paying attention to politics — but is simultaneously repelled by what they see.

While Guidarini is concerned about a generation of voters turned off by politics as they are forming their political identities, she doesn't think all hope is lost: "I think that if politics starts to change in a direction that I think all of America wants to see it change — not just young people — then you'll see young people get back in the game."

The question is whether politics will improve unless a new generation gets more involved and pushes for that change.

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Millennials have been slacking off. No, no, no, not the whole generation and not all of the time.


We've been reporting on the new boom - the vast generation of Millennials who are called that because they came-of-age in this century. And it's a reality that they have actually reshaped American life far more than many people realize.

MARTIN: But many have not always been showing up at election time. A big youth vote in 2008 has been hard to repeat, which is something Rock the Vote is trying to change.


LIL JON: (Rapping) Rock the vote. Rock, Rock the vote. Turn down for what?

MARTIN: That's rapper Lil Jon. And he's the latest music star trying to help Rock the Vote get its message across. The group turns 25 this year, and now it's trying to motivate a whole new generation to get to the polls. One of NPR's Millennials Arnie Seipel reports.

ARNIE SEIPEL, BYLINE: Back in the day, this is how Rock the Vote got its message across.


MADONNA: (Rapping) Dr. King, Malcolm X, freedom of speech is as good as sex. Abe Lincoln, Jefferson, Tom - they didn't need the atomic bomb.

SEIPEL: That was a bit of peak Madonna - Madonna circa 1990 -in a Rock the Vote spot trying to get young Gen-Xers to pay attention to politics back before many Millennials were even born. Rock the Vote still sets up shop at music festivals. But the group is also following this generation to where they usually find new music - or a taxi or a date.

ASHLEY SPILLANE: You have over 90 percent of Millennials connected to the Internet. You have over 60 percent of Millennials connected to the Internet when they are away from home. They are mostly all connected everywhere they are.

SEIPEL: That's Ashley Spillane, the new president of Rock the Vote. She's got a new staff this year. They're mostly Millennials. And she's one herself. Spillane points to one big barrier that keeps Millennials from registering to vote.

SPILLANE: In the majority of states in this country, you cannot register to vote online.

SEIPEL: So Rock the Vote built a system where you type your information into their site, and if you're in one of those states without online voter registration, the site will fill out the form for you. Still, there's that whole deal of printing it out on paper and mailing it in.

SPILLANE: I think if you ask young people where to buy a stamp it's a bit of a foreign concept these days.

SEIPEL: But even if most young people have to use paper to register to vote, they say the Internet has at least made them better prepared to vote.

JACOB BELL: I think that we have the most amount of information - obviously - than any generation has ever had before to work with.

SEIPEL: Jacob Bell is 20 years old. He's a student at the University of Maryland.

BELL: I can pull up Facebook in front of me and see five different articles about the next Senate race. And that's something that I know my mom's generation never had.

SEIPEL: When he got to college, Jacob was amazed at how much his peers really were paying attention.

BELL: I walked down the hall my freshman year, everyone had, like, the State of the Union address on. I will say though that there's this disconnect between finding it interesting and actually paying attention to it versus actually doing something. There's a lot of Millennials that feel kind of jaded.

SEIPEL: I asked Jacob and a couple of his friends why they feel jaded by politics. Students Marissa Buccafusco and Justin Sotille have the same issues with politics as everybody else.

JUSTIN SOTILLE: A good idea may be proposed by one party and the other party won't vote for it purely because of its party of origin.

BELL: Are they just going to, like, vote within their party and not, you know, try and reach a compromise or try and do anything, you know, that would actually make a difference?

SEIPEL: Make a difference. It's something you hear over and over again from young people. They want to make a difference.

EVA GUIDARINI: Millennials very much believe in the value of public service, but they don't believe in the value of politics.

SEIPEL: Eva Guidarini is the student president of the Harvard Institute of Politics, which studies young voters.

GUIDARINI: They no longer think that politics is an honorable thing to do.

SEIPEL: But from the time this generation was first eligible to vote, they did. Turnout was way up for young voters in 2004 and 2008. Since then, things have fallen off. The Harvard Institute of Politics did polling this year that showed enthusiasm among young voters is significantly lower than it was even back in 2010 when barely one in four voters under 30 turned out. So the challenge facing Ashley Spillane at Rock the Vote is that this generation that was pulled into the political process just a few years ago is repelled by it today.

GUIDARINI: Politics right now is really disheartening. I think it's why you see in the polls that young people are not affiliating with political parties.

SEIPEL: Eva Guidarini says the feeling that the political system is broken could have a long-term impact with Millennials.

GUIDARINI: This pretty heavy disillusionment in this really formative political period for young people is definitely a cause for concern.

SEIPEL: But she says her generation can get inspired again.

GUIDARINI: I think that if politics starts to change in a direction that I think really all of America wants to see it change, not just young people, that you'll see young people get back in the game.

SEIPEL: So maybe Millennials won't be a force in 2014, but we all know that 2016 is right around the corner. Arnie Seipel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.