Less than two weeks from Election Day, a generation of young voters in America is being avidly courted by political campaigns and energetic — sometimes even celebrity — surrogates. Much of this outreach is intended to remind young voters of the importance of voting and of their place in our great democracy. But if candidates want to win young Americans’ votes, they must do more than appeal to Millennials’ sense of civic duty. Candidates must also speak directly about the issues young voters care about the most.
Millennials, now America’s largest and most diverse generation, have experienced a wave of political, social and economic challenges in the past decade. Their trust in institutions has waned in the face of soaring college costs, a $1.3 trillion student debt crisis, a youth unemployment rate that is twice the national average, and a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately afflicts communities of color.
As a generation, Millennials are facing urgent issues that their parents’ generation didn’t have to deal with in their youth. And it’s these issues that are resonating with young voters today. Therefore, solutions to these issues are what can help candidates win the support of Millennials.
So what issues win the support of the Millennial voter?
According to a recent poll from Generation Progress Action, young people are overwhelmingly more likely to back a candidate who supports policies that would address college affordability and student debt. Specifically, the poll found that 78 percent of Millennial respondents would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports free public college for families that earn less than $125,000 a year.
Similarly, 71 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports refinancing student loans. These trends cut across race and gender.
Yet candidates appear to be talking too little about the issues that matter most to young voters. According to Generation Progress Action’s poll, one in three young voters feel that candidates aren’t talking enough about the issues they care about to get out and vote.
When the issues Millennials care about are left out of the conversation, Millennial voter turnout is low. Only 45 percent of people age 18 to 29 voted in 2012, compared with 62.3 percent of the general population. A mere 19.9 percent of young people voted in 2014.
It’s not that young people don’t care about the issues. In fact, young people are far from disinterested in the democratic and political processes. To the contrary, Millennials are leading social movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement, are volunteering in their communities, and are civically engaged at all-time high rates.
Instead of pandering to earn Millennial votes, candidates should connect with these voters by actually talking about the issues young people care about — such as student debt, college affordability, repairing the criminal justice system and making the economy work for young people, too.
To be sure, talking about these issues is just one important step to motivating this crucial demographic to vote. Elected officials must also remove barriers to voting, such as outdated voter registration systems and election administration decisions that make voting harder.
Automatic voter registration — in which unregistered eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote when they interact with a public agency unless they opt out — would help streamline voter registration so that more eligible Americans have the opportunity to vote. Such programs are already proving successful: Oregon’s automatic voter registration program, launched this year, has contributed to the highest number of registered voters in the state’s history.
Meanwhile, allowing for same-day registration could also help boost voter turnout by allowing voters to register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day. In 2012, states with same-day registration had average turnout rates that were 10 points higher than states without same-day registration. That same year, four out of the five states with the highest participation used same-day registration.
Getting Millennials to vote isn’t just important for this election cycle. Getting young people to vote is important because Millennials’ voices — their generational ethos of embracing diversity, inclusiveness and optimism — are too powerful to get lost beneath the hyper-partisan din.
The Millennial vote isn’t some Great Mystery. We just want to know that our voices and concerns are being heard by those running for office. By connecting our vote to the issues that matter to us and by removing unnecessary barriers to participation, Millennials will turn out to vote.