Youth voter turnout has always been pathetically low in the United States. The rates for the 18–24 age group have never climbed much above the halfway mark, always lingering beneath every other age group in the country.
Now, young people are mobilizing. Young Republicans are turning out by an increase of tens of thousands in the primaries this election, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. The Democratic primary is still more popular among young voters, but increases in either party are opportunities for crucial lessons in civic engagement.
The numbers have increased primarily in response to the popularity of this contentious election’s having changed the political discourse: throwing in nonestablishment candidates like Bernie Sanders and unexpected wild cards like Donald Trump. Young Republicans going to the polls are more ambivalent toward Trump as a serious contender, and perhaps more are voting for people like John Kasich to try to prevent Trump from taking the nomination. Bernie Sanders is spouting ideas attractive to any college student with mountains of student loans ahead and with frustrations about the stale economy and politicians so entrenched in financial interests. Social media is flooded with gaffes and praises for each of the top contenders, with some of the most intense supporters making a louder online presence than ever seen before in past elections.
It is time young people turn this frenetic energy into informed votes. Much of the discussion around this election is loud and crass, zeroing in on little quips and singular bold statements and funny New York accents, pitting party against party. If the flurry of social media activity around this election is what is driving more youth to the polls, then these young voters should then take the time to do their own research about their candidates. No one can rely on social media and news media coverage to be sufficient in providing a balanced, even distribution of the scope of information about the presidential candidates. Donald Trump spends the least on advertising among people still in the Republican race but benefits the most from earned media, or news coverage — in other words, free advertising. He has earned almost $2 billion in free media, next to Sanders’ $321 million.
Youth voting is making the long-awaited upturn, but we cannot make it for the wrong, misguided reasons. Look at the candidates’ policies, read and research outside of media coverage — which has been grossly imbalanced — and make an informed decision. Without the youth vote in four contentious states in 2012, Mitt Romney would have won the election, according to CIRCLE data. We are influential, so let’s not misuse that power.