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Guest Post – A Sense of Youth Agency Beyond Elections

By: Joelle Gamble, The Roosevelt Institute

This guest post is the third in a series about whether and how youth electoral engagement can have broader goals, including connections to civic life and democracy more generally.

Millennials and Generation Z—those just turning 18—will be a powerful voting bloc in 2016. We now represent the same proportion of the electorate as the Boomer generation. However, there is a problem with our system of governance: Our decision-makers are older and whiter than we are. Latinos, for example, make up 17.4 percent of the U.S. population but only 4 percent of state legislators. The average age of state legislators is 56 years old. Young voters, in contrast, are racially diverse; half of all eligible Latino voters are under 35. The political process, in short, does not work for everyone. So it comes to no surprise that young voters are disenchanted with politics—though not necessarily disengaged.

Part of the problem with youth engagement in politics is that outreach is far too focused on Election Day, instead of seeing it as an important inflection point in a longer process of youth engagement. Voter registration and turnout are very important, but the fight to encourage more young people to value political participation starts long before ballots are cast. Perennial civic infrastructure that allows young people to engage in issues, and with government, on a regular basis can improve this generation’s opinion of government’s ability to solve problems, which would in turn make it more likely that they’ll get to the polls. Our recent survey of 1,000 young people in our network found that 80 percent of them care more about a fair and inclusive political process than about seeing their preferred candidate win.

At the Roosevelt Institute, we have found that several guiding principles drive students to engage with us. Two stand out in particular. The first is the ability for young people’s actions to have a tangible impact in the short term; the second is the ability for young people’s actions to solve real-world problems. Partisan politics has failed to pass the impact and problem-solving tests.

The immediate results of partisan battles are hardly visible or else negative; frequent threats of government shutdown in recent years are an important example. Gridlock in Congress has damaged the perception that government is capable of solving problems; in fact, partisan obstructionism makes political leaders seem like a part of the problem. Perhaps as a result, half of young people decline to identify with a political party. Despite these discouraging factors, there are signs of opportunity to jumpstart youth engagement. According to recent data from the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of 18 to-29-year-olds say they believe ordinary citizens can influence government—the highest of any age cohort. This signals that youth political engagement centered on instilling a sense of agency in participants has potential.

The Roosevelt Institute is organizing young people across the country to create opportunities for their peers to influence politics and policy. In our Next Generation Blueprint for 2016, we call on decision-makers to open up government for our generation. At the local and state level, this includes procedural changes such as taking meaningful steps to decrease the role of money in politics, creating youth advisory councils, lowering the voting age to 16, supporting paid internships to increase the diversity of emerging public servants, and modernizing voter registration (which includes repealing draconian voter ID laws). We believe that these kinds of procedural and policy changes can create more opportunities for youth to influence government before the election and invest them in organizing their peers when it is time to vote.

Roosevelt is one of several organizations working to make government more accessible to young people starting at the local and state levels. For example, New Era Colorado actively builds youth leadership in its state while also pushing for reforms that make participation easier and build local power. In Illinois, Mikva Challenge engages high school youth through civic education. Notably, they run five youth councils in the city of Chicago, injecting young voices into the decision-making process. There is a growing wave of groups committed to a more participatory process. In order to boost youth participation on Election Day and beyond, we need more investments in programs like these that maintain the infrastructure that keeps young people engaged between elections.