Young first-time voters march to cast ballots in Colorado. Photo by Cliff Grassmick/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty
On Tuesday, New York magazine published a fascinating, infuriating series of interviews with young Americans who were “probably” not going to vote in the November 6 midterm elections. It was fascinating because non-voters are rarely given a voice in debates over politics and policy, and infuriating because Democrats need young people to vote in order to win elections, and even though nearly all of the interviewees appeared to lean left and were interested in politics—and in several cases had voted before—they’d managed to convince themselves it might not be worthwhile.
Some of them complained about the hassle of registering and casting a ballot, underscoring that states need to make it easier for people to vote. Others cited a lack of enthusiasm about Democratic candidates in particular (you get the sense that they’d never even consider voting Republican). But the most striking answers were from young people who felt like they weren’t adequately informed.
Samantha, a 22-year-old from New Jersey, didn’t think it was hard to vote and clearly favored Democrats. But she also told New York, “I’d rather have an informed nonvoter than an uninformed voter going in and making a choice they don’t understand.” Reese, a 23-year-old political science student, had never voted and seemed unsure of his views: “I just didn’t know what to do,” he said of the 2016 presidential contest. “I didn’t want to help something that might end up being wrong.” Lauren, a 21-year-old Floridian, was vaguely planning on voting in 2020: “I have a goal set to know more about politics by that time.” And Nathan, a 28-year-old San Diegan, seemed to follow the news but still felt unprepared:
My parents are of the generation where they actually watch the news, and they know about candidates via the news. Where my generation, the millennial generation, is getting all their news from social media like Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, and that is not always the best. Reading things through social media is snippets, and it’s not the whole details on everything, you know?
It’s true that voting can seem like a daunting responsibility: There are so many issues, and so many candidates, and every person who talks about politics on television or social media sounds so sure and confident about a hundred different things. How do you know what is true and what isn’t? How do you know when you know enough for your vote to be an expression of what you truly believe? It’s easy for those questions to lead to paralysis, a kind of learned apathy—like Samantha, maybe you think it’s better to be an informed nonvoter than an uniformed voter.
But it’s not. You won’t know everything, or nearly enough, and you should vote anyway. Otherwise, our society will be run by ignorant old people who do not care about your future.
A poll conducted last month by HuffPost/YouGov found that 38 percent of American adults under 30 thought only people who were “well-informed” should vote, compared to 31 percent of Americans overall—a result that lines up with the anecdotes compiled by New York. According to that poll, young people were also less likely to describe themselves as well-informed, and the split between them and seniors was especially vast: 63 percent of respondents over 65 said they were “very well-informed” and zero percent said they were “not at all well-informed.”
This is obviously absurd—senior citizens are not smarter or more up to speed on the issues than young people. (One Pew survey recently found that older folks were worse at distinguishing fact from opinion than the young.) The olds’ edge is not in knowledge but in being utterly confident in their ignorance. Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z make up a majority of the electorate, but Boomers and older generations vote much more frequently, and voted at higher rates even when they were the same age as younger Americans are now.
If, like the young people New York spoke to, you are cynical, apathetic, or enraged about the current state of politics, those older voters deserve a disproportionate amount of blame. Older people do tend to be more conservative (possibly partly because poor people tend to die earlier), and less worried about climate change, according to Gallup. And though climate change is perhaps a uniquely generation issue since seniors won’t be around to suffer its worst consequences, young people are far more progressive than their parents on a host of other issues, from immigration to racial discrimination. Congress won’t reflect those values until young people vote in large numbers and force politicians to cater to them.
In a general election like the one coming up on Tuesday, November 6, the choice is fairly easy when it comes to congressional candidates. If you like Trump and his policies, vote Republican. If you don’t like Trump—and chances are you don’t if you are young—vote Democrat. It may be that you are unfamiliar with the candidates on the ballot, especially in races for more local positions like city council, and when it comes to contests where you are totally clueless, you can always leave those lines blank. There are also likely a host of voter guides from organizations and publications in your area if you want to spend a few minutes becoming informed.
But the ballot is not a test and it’s impossible to fail it. If you vote for someone who it turns out you don’t like, you can vote against them in a couple of years. If, like some of New York‘s interviewees, you realize that even though you lean left you aren’t excited by your state’s Democratic candidates, that’s perhaps evidence that you should get more involved in the primary process and vote more often, not check out entirely. A representative democracy only represents those who participate in it. Not voting is an easy way to alienate yourself further, and feel more out of touch.
It’s true that at times, the world seems designed to make it harder for young people to engage with politics. Registering to vote can involve annoying trips to the post office and dealing with a shitty government bureaucracy. In some states, voter ID laws make it difficult for college students to cast ballots. Unlike retirees, you probably have something to do on Tuesday. And the death of local news outlets has made getting information about your candidates less intuitive. As Nathan suggested in his New York interview, young people who mostly follow news through social media may be more familiar with national figures who attract press attention like Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke than they are with the local politicians who actually represent them.
It’s easy to skip the whole democracy thing. But though you may not be interested in politics, politics is interested in you—the people making up your federal, state, and local governments will make decisions that impact your life, whether you vote or not. If you don’t vote due to whatever high-minded justification or intelligent-sounding reason, it’s no different than not voting because you don’t give a shit, and the result will be the same: The country will continue to be run by the same graying greedheads who brought us the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, and climate change paralysis. You may vote for the wrong candidates sometimes. But you won’t be doing a worse job than the people who got us in this mess.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.