Sophie Linett, a senior at Santa Fe Waldorf School, voted for the first time this year. She has been paying attention to the presidential race for a while, she saw Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speak at the Santa Fe Community College during primary season, and she watches the candidates’ speeches and debates whenever possible.
Yet despite her build-up of excitement over exercising her voting right for the first time, it felt anti-climatic when all was said and done.
“It’s hard to feel like you’re making a difference by filling out a bubble,” Linett said.
But decades from now, she might recall with more fondness the first time she made her voice heard in an election. Deborah Schildkraut, professor and department chairwoman of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts, remembers the first time she voted in the presidential election of 1992. At the time, Schildkraut was registered to vote in New York but attended college in Massachusetts and thus had to vote absentee.
“I can remember the room I was living in at the time and the bed I was sitting on when I filled out the absentee ballot. It doesn’t have the same pomp and circumstance as going to a polling place, but it was still pretty cool,” Schildkraut said.
But as Election Day looms Tuesday, are the youth of America paying attention and taking part in the election process? And which candidate are they favoring at this point?
GenForward, run by the University of Chicago Black Youth Project, found that 38 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 30 said they will vote for Hillary Clinton, 17 percent for Donald Trump and 22 percent for another candidate.
But maybe Sanders, who lost the Democratic race for president, did capture the hearts and hopes of teens and young Americans more so than the two remaining candidates. That GenForward survey reported that if the election were between Sanders and Donald Trump, 61 percent of young adults between 18 and 30 years old said they would vote for Sanders and 16 percent would vote for Trump.
According to CNN, politics, youth and millennials have favored the Democratic side over Republicans by 9 points or more in most elections since 1988. Still, only 45 percent of young adults age 18 to 29 voted in the 2012 election. Are they not tuned into the issues or is voting unimportant to them?
GenForward also conducted a survey of the most important issues to young adults ages 18 to 30. They found that the issues vary by race. African-Americans were concerned with racism and police brutality. Asian-Americans were concerned with education. Hispanics were concerned about immigration. Anglo voters were most focused on terrorism and homeland security.
When Generation Next asked a number of teens what issues are most important to them in this presidential race, many had unclear answers.
Linett is very concerned with animal and wildlife protection and is happy to see that Clinton addresses this issue.
“Although I voted for Sanders in the primaries, I’m now mostly satisfied with the idea of Clinton as president, especially because it’s about time there was a woman in office,” she said. “The decision-making process was simple for me (actually, it was virtually nonexistent), because I always knew I would vote for the Democratic nominee, even if he or she wasn’t who I voted for in the primaries.”
Despite the controversies surrounding Clinton, including an FBI investigation into her emails, Linett said, “I’d much rather have an occasionally dishonest president than a racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic one.”
While the majority of young adults voted Democratic in the primaries and seem to be leaning toward Clinton, there are teens who support Trump. Houston teen Adele Carlson, 17, said that she would vote for him if she were eligible. Carlson talks politics a lot with her friends and family. She and her friends want to volunteer at the polls during Election Day, though nearly all of her friends are voting for Clinton. She stays on top of the election through her favorite news sources, including Fox News, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Politico.
Carlson supports Trump’s immigration policies and appreciates his staunch stand on many other issues. “I think Hillary Clinton is just not taking it seriously enough, and immigration is a really big problem that we face,” Carlson said. She also appreciates Trump’s stand on abortion, “I look at [Tim] Kaine and Clinton, who are pro-abortion, and I think that is just so wrong.”
Several teens who attended the Trump rally in Albuquerque on Sunday said they are supporting him because they believe he will make the country stronger, create new jobs and give America back its identity as a strong nation. Gabriel Zavala, 16, of Albuquerque, was selling pro-Trump flags for $20 at the rally. “He’s not your average politician,” Zavala said of Trump. “I truly believe he can turn this country around. I’m against the wall [which Trump wants to build on the Mexican border to keep undocumented immigrants from entering America], but I still feel he is the best choice.”
But many of the teens who attended that event said that many of their fellow students are not paying attention to the presidential race, don’t care who wins or, at best, simply parrot what they hear about the two main candidates from others without really understanding or debating the issues.
Carlson believes that voting is a great way to remind teens that they have a voice. She questions why we have the voting age at 18, especially if the majority of 18-year-olds don’t take advantage of that right.
Teens should get interested and involved with the political process as future stakeholders as soon as possible, said Alfred Montero, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota. He believes it is crucial for millennials and youth to vote when they get the chance. He thinks they should be learning about civics and about how the American government works on all levels.
“Exercising the right to vote is one form of civic engagement. There are many, many others, but their vote at least ties them into the political system in a very direct way.”
Schildkraut believes that it is important that any eligible voter casts a ballot. To her, it shows a commitment to democracy. “The chance of somebody’s vote actually affecting the outcome [of the election] is small,” she said. “That’s not why people vote. People vote because we give our consent to be governed. Voting is like a habit, so if you start early it is like any exercise or training — the more you practice the better at it you get. The more involved in politics you are, the more you will continue to be involved in politics. Starting at a young age is important.”
Still, some teens just don’t want to take part for various reasons. Desert Academy senior Alex Alsop is old enough to vote in this year’s presidential election but will not do so.
“The popular vote doesn’t decide who is president — therefore I will not be voting for the president,” he said. “But, the popular vote does decide who is governor, who is mayor, Congress, so I will be voting for those people but not for president.”
Others just don’t see either candidate showing concern for teens. Santa Fe Prep junior Ayden Flynn doesn’t believe either presidential candidate is speaking to teen issues. Flynn is disappointed that Clinton hasn’t spoken much about Sanders’ policies, for example, and thinks Sanders’ loss in the primaries “reinforced that this election isn’t going so well.” Sanders, he said, was “teens’ last hope.”
So what is the best way to get millennials to vote? Maybe it starts with family, Montero said.
“Do they talk with their siblings and their parents and their friends about politics and history?,” Montero said. “Are they curious about these things? I was curious about those things.
“I always grew up with politics at home, politics being talked about in the community, and that cemented my interest. It is difficult for teens and adults to develop that interest without a context. There isn’t really a great strategy to get people who aren’t really aware and motivated to go out and vote.
“It counts if it matters to you.”
Juliana Brenner is a senior at Desert Academy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.