On Tuesday, New York Magazine released a series of interviews with twelve young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who say they probably aren’t voting in the upcoming midterm elections. The series perfectly (one might even say cynically) combined two of the Politically Online’s favorite foils: maddening non-voters and the apathy of The Youth toward treasured institutions. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that the piece immediately went hate-viral and set alight media Slack channels across the country.
There are, to be sure, some truly asinine rationales undergirding some of these non-voters’ decision-making processes. One former socialist mentions both Machiavelli and Cicero as key figures that provided so much nuance upon reading them that he no longer feels like he can make an informed decision. Another says mailing things makes him anxious. But despite the fact that some part of each of these nonvoters’ vignettes read like parodies of identity-obsessed millennials—surely not the result of selective editing—the immediate and visceral rage that is now being directed at them is misplaced. It fundamentally ignores the very real, to them at least, justifications for not voting that these millennial/gen-z cusps articulate—justifications that won’t be swayed by yelling at them online.
Let’s start with the one that’s probably the easiest to understand for those of you are probably hate-clicking on this right now: The plain simple fact that, for a lot of people, voting isn’t easy. “It was easier to get my medical-marijuana card—not a right, or even federally legal—than it was to register to vote,” said one respondent. “Massachusetts had online registration but only if you have a DMV-issued ID. I don’t drive, so I was like, okay, I can register in person, but I’m also dealing with a chronic illness.” The intentionally opaque process of getting adequate voter ID is compounded by a uniquely millennial problem: Never having a permanent address because you’re bouncing from rented apartment to rented apartment. If you choose to vote where your parents live—the most stable option unless, of course, your parents move—then welcome to the headache of absentee voting. “It’s such a tedious process to even get registered in Texas, let alone vote as an absentee,” said a 21-year-old in Austin.
Now, I’m sure most of you are rolling your eyes right now, saying Rachelle, being an adult is about doing the difficult but necessary things in life. And it’s true that no one is running to a gynecology appointment or gleefully looking forward to filing their income taxes. It’s also true that as a black woman, few people understand more than I do how hard-won the right to vote is or how important it is to push past the minutia to exercise that right. But maybe, just maybe, these interviews shouldn’t just act as an indictment of youthful laziness. They should hammer home that one of our primary political objectives needs to be making voting less difficult. Whether it’s something as mundane as untethering the absentee ballot process from the postage system (which apparently causes this age subset an undue amount of stamp-related stress), or striking down demonstrably racist voter ID policies or automatically registering everyone at the age of 18, it’s clear at this point that voter apathy on some level is fueled by the bureaucratic morass of the process.
When wading through that morass feels futile, or you don’t feel informed or excited about a candidate (as so many of these young adults noted), the choice to not vote doesn’t read as insanely as the naysayers’ preachy outrage suggests. It’s easy to forget that most of the people in this interview would only really remember three presidents, two of whom lost the popular vote by huge margins. They only know a stagnant, divided Democratic Party and a violently racist Republican one. They are, with a few notable exceptions, only familiar with the lesser of two evils. They have little tangible proof that the process works and are surrounded by constant news of how that process is being undermined by Russia and gerrymandering and voter fraud commissions. I know, I know, a plurality of people overcome all of that and still vote. But as one respondent notes, “I think you’ve got to have something besides just strategic voting, or people resigning themselves to a candidate they don’t love but who is at least a Democrat.” When voting is framed as moral imperative, which it often is, it’s not ludicrous to think that one might skip out on the hassle if no candidate in your district lines up with your own stated values.
Of course, the prospect of living in an ethno-state run by rich white men who separate children from their parents and refuse to condemn Nazis should be alarming enough to get most people out to vote. But as much as we all wish it was, it’s clear at this point that it’s not. It was clear in 2016, its clear now, and it will be painfully clear in 2020 if all we plan to do to convince non-voters is spew patriotic platitudes and righteous anger across Twitter. For anyone who has watched with horror the path this country has gone down over past two, four, twelve, hundred years, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But if you truly care about getting people like those represented in that series of interviews to vote, swallow it you must.
These interviews illuminate our dire need for a paradigm shift around the institution of voting, both in terms of the way we talk about it and the way we do it. Rather than sitting in an immediate outrage that reeks of self-righteousness and isn’t likely to sway anyone, we need to answer the questions these interviews raise. What have we done to frame politics in such a way that so many of these young adults are stricken with the fear that they’re not informed enough to make a choice? Where are they being socialized into the idea that voting is “an individual act with these moral consequences” or the “climax of democracy” rather than one part of a collective action? Why can’t we, in the year 2018, just vote on a secure government website that lets us post a sticker to Insta afterward?
These questions are not an excuse for nonvoters, nor a defense. But they are asking us to look at low voter enthusiasm and turnout with the same pragmatism that scoldy journalists and other upstanding citizens are telling these young adults to practice. The system is broken, and sneering at young people who are, in the final analysis, just pointing that out won’t fix it.
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