Opinion Columns & Blogs

Let’s give younger voters a little more credit

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stand together before the start of the Univision, Washington Post Democratic presidential debate at Miami-Dade College in Miami on March 9.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stand together before the start of the Univision, Washington Post Democratic presidential debate at Miami-Dade College in Miami on March 9. Associated Press

I’m grateful that California won’t be voting in the primaries until June, mostly because I haven’t decided who I want to vote for yet. In this heated presidential primary season, I’ve waffled back and forth a couple dozen times, deciding on Hillary Clinton, then Bernie Sanders, then Hillary, no, back to Bernie — I even briefly considered voting for Martin O’Malley, or maybe switching sides and hopping on the John Kasich bandwagon. I still haven’t made up my mind, and I marvel at how voters in New Hampshire, Iowa and elsewhere did it so quickly.

One thing I haven’t done, though, is take this election lightly.

I just turned 26 years old, part of the millennial wave of voters that is buoying Bernie Sanders, and I take the privilege of voting — and the responsibilities that come with it — very seriously. Outside of the newsroom, I spend time reading The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications. I follow FiveThirtyEight on Twitter, as well as several political commentators. I’m weighing gender, economics, foreign policy, race and a whole bunch of other factors when evaluating candidates.

Which is why it’s getting tiresome to hear about how shallow and foolish young voters are. While I’m busy trying to take this election seriously, my elders are busy criticizing the newly-eligible-to-vote. There are people like Gloria Steinem, who remarked that young women are flocking to Bernie Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie,” and the only thing young women care about is flirting, obvi.

Then there’s people like Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of National Review Online, who says young people are bad voters because we’re “so fricking stupid.” Which is, well, just kind of a frickin’ stupid way to write off an entire group of people.

This grousing about those good-for-nothing youths is nothing new. I’ve been hearing it since I was first allowed to vote, in 2008, when a young Barack Obama brought millennials to the polling booths in droves. About 14.8 million people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Obama. It was the first year I voted, and it seemed all I heard left and right was how foolish the young people were for pushing the inexperienced, idealistic Obama to the Democratic nomination, even though he clearly couldn’t win the general.

Obama won in 2008, and again in 2012 (though with less youth support, stemming from the feeling that he had failed to deliver on campaign promises; you live and you learn, I guess). And though I haven’t always been pleased with his administration, my belief in the importance of voting hasn’t changed.

I vote in midterm elections. Once, in college, I skipped class and walked to a polling booth in the rain, just to vote. Most people don’t imagine that college students skip class for civic duties, I’m guessing.

If anything, instead of scolding young people for being foolish or voting for the “wrong candidate,” we should be doing more to encourage them to vote. Only about 20 percent of millennials vote in midterm elections, compared with 24 percent of the general population.

Voters who start voting as soon as they’re able become more engaged in the political process. We know our voices matter, and we’re more likely to continue voting throughout our lifetimes. We’ll become more well-versed in the political process and issues, but we’ll always vote from our own perspective, which this year overwhelmingly means supporting the candidate who wants to eliminate student loan debt.

Older generations can criticize us for being shallow, but we’re simply choosing our political candidate based on our values and concerns, like any other American.

So, Bernie? Hillary? Trump? Cruz? I’m still figuring it out. But I’m newly 26, and when June 7 rolls around, I’ll be at my polling station ready to make my pick. Isn’t that what democracy is about?

Victoria Billings is a copy editor at The Tribune.

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