Just 38 percent of voters 18 to 24 years old participated in the last presidential election, according to the U.S. Census. That number increases by an underwhelming 7 percentage points when you include voters up to 29 years old.
That dismal participation rate, I posit, is not due to apathy, but rather disillusionment.
The millennial generation may be many things, but they’re not apathetic: More than half of young Americans volunteer their time to causes or organizations they care about. Many of the country’s young elite eschewed banking and consulting jobs to “Teach for America,” and they have been largely credited with bringing social entrepreneurship into the mainstream.
Yet, millennials increasingly see electoral politics as irrelevant, ineffective and corrupted by money. This younger generation is repelled by “attack” campaigning and the current dysfunction of our two-party system. We need to remember, this generation was raised not just to think, but to believe to the core that they can do anything.
This is not a mindset of entitlement, but instead an unabashed impatience for the status quo. A recent Harvard poll found that more young people identify as independents than as Democrats or Republicans. Gridlock and black and white thinking are quite simply intolerable to the millennial generation.
I suspect this disillusionment contributes to the swelling support for Bernie Sanders, who is unlocking a populism that seems to transcend party lines. His appeal cannot be disputed among young democrat voters and you need only spend a few minutes on reddit (a thing for millennials) to see the unlikely support young Republicans are throwing behind the senator.
Millennial support for a white male septuagenarian seems to have little to do with where he falls on the political spectrum and much more to do with his call for structural change. Young voters are done with politics as usual. And they see Sanders — who’s spent most of his career as an independent — as refreshingly unbeholden to political parties, corporate interests or the status quo.
I share the fatigue with a system that forces voters to choose from the lesser of two evils. That’s why I’ve gotten involved in the movement for Ranked Choice Voting. As a Minneapolitan, I’ve experienced firsthand how it transforms politics into something more constructive, inclusive and representative of what voters really want.
In the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral race, RCV seemed to disrupt the electoral cycle in all the right ways. It mitigated the influence of money, gave voters more choices, allowed voters to “vote their hearts” without trading off the use of their heads, attracted a more politically diverse candidate field, eliminated a low-turnout primary, undermined PAC spending on negative attacks and yielded a city government that looks much more like the people it serves. Folks critical of the process were stakeholders interested in maintaining their power as political brokers.
St. Paul experienced the same success last year. The action was in the competitive multi-candidate Ward 2 which saw the highest voter turnout for the area in years. Voters of all ages, income levels, ethnicities and education levels demonstrated their understanding of RCV and that they like having more power and choice in choosing their elected officials.
The debate on the effectiveness of RCV has been settled in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But this transformative change should not stay relegated to our local elections. At the state and national level this electoral reform could have the same kind of disruptive and rejuvenating effect for which so many millennial voters clamor. We should keep our eyes on Maine, a state that will be considering statewide RCV this year. My only disappointment with Maine’s consideration of this issue is the possibility Minnesota won’t be leading the charge on this important change.
We’re not going to stem the trend of cynicism and political disengagement by tinkering around at the margins. Young people can feel in their bones that bold, systemic change is what’s needed. I’m proud to help advance a movement that’s about making democracy itself work better — not just for the revolutionary youth, but for all Americans.
Jim Watkins lives and works in northeast Minneapolis. He volunteers as a board member for Fair Vote MN, an advocacy group for Ranked Choice Voting in Minnesota.