Young Voters Voice Concern, Hope for Future as ‘Mess’ of Election Winds Down

The 2016 presidential campaign comes to a close with final voting Tuesday — and Olivia Berven, a first-time voter from St. Paul, Minnesota, had already sent in her absentee ballot. She voted for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and said it was easy to access the ballot, which she found on Twitter.

The rest of the election hasn’t been so simple.

“It doesn’t feel like a normal election,” said Berven, a first-year psychology major at Loyola University of Chicago. “The candidates- one is crazy, the other is not well-liked.”

Thomas Southerland, a 32-year-old clinical worker at a community mental health agency in Chicago, agrees.

“It’s a mess,” he said. “It is like reality TV.”

“They are very different from the other [candidates,]” said Marco Silva, 29. A painter by trade, he watched his children play by Lake Michigan as he considered the 2016 presidential race between chief rivals Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. “They’re telling nothing about what they’re going to do about the country.”

In the 2012 election, the number of votes cast by 18-29 year-olds was 22,905,415, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, based at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. In that year, citizens aged 18-29 numbered 45,700,991.

When the numbers, calculated by CIRCLE from the U.S. Census, November Current Population Survey 1972-2010, are crunched, they indicate 50.12 percent of citizens aged 18-29 cast a vote in the 2012 election year.

The demographic at the center of those numbers has a key role in the current election cycle, in which emotions are running high.


“I am absolutely sick of this election,” said Rebeca Bell, 34. She and Patrick Chinner, 33, who were walking outside Truman College in Chicago with their 2-year-old daughter Ruth, describe themselves as political enthusiasts. But the rise of Trump has startled them both and left them waiting for the end of the campaigns.

“He just says such horrible, hateful things,” said Chinner. “And he seems to have brought out the worst in a whole bunch of people.”

Bell agreed. She is distressed that so much of the country has fallen in behind the real estate owner, businessman and former reality television star.

These are attitudes with which Nicole Johnson, field director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Chicago Votes, is familiar.

“There’s either disenchantment or there’s a higher sense of urgency,” she said. But she expressed optimism about young people’s potential for impact.

“Young people… they have a good handle on what’s going on and what’s wrong,” she said. “We think they have the most ability and capability to do something it.”

Abby Kiesa, director of impact at CIRCLE, however, cautioned against generalizations about youth voters.

“One of the things I’m going to emphasize is that when you look at young people’s subgroups, you see very different things,” she said. “There are some youths who vote almost as high as adults and some who vote below. Young black women are very likely to vote and vote in high numbers, especially those with experience in higher ed[ucation].”

The GenForward Survey series of the Black Youth Project, hosted at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago, highlights how the view of the 2016 election varies by race among young voters. Among 18-30 year-olds who are likely voters, the October report found 76 percent of African-Americans, 74 percent of Asian-Americans, 57 percent of Latinos, and 51 percent of whites intend to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Matthew Luttig, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Chicago who works on the GenForward Surveys, observed that in the media, it has been a popular theme that Clinton and Trump are two of the most unpopular candidates in history running against each other. The GenForward surveys, however, which oversample young people of color, found that only among young whites are Clinton and Trump viewed more unfavorably than favorably. Luttig said among young people of color, Clinton is viewed more favorably than unfavorably.

The September GenForward Survey found all racial and ethnic groups agreed that the three most important economic issues for the next president to address were student debt, wages and income inequality.

“I really wanted somebody who seemed to be in support of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Maddy Langer, a freshman at Loyola who is majoring in elementary education. “Neither seemed to be in support of that, but Hillary was better.”

Berven said her first issue would have been global warming and the environment, but noted that was rarely discussed.

Chinner and Bell felt the same, with Chinner holding that the attention and money spent by the government on issues of voter fraud and immigration are far out of proportion to the problems each cause. “Meanwhile, climate change, which is an actual thing that threatens my child’s future, is barely talked about,” Bell said, although it was touched on in the debates.

Child care was another major issue they pointed to in the context of the future.

“There’s not been nearly enough talk about what to do about families with kids,” Chinner said. “We pay an absurd amount to take Ruth to daycare and can only withhold $5,000. Ballpark, we’re going to pay $15,000 – for one kid.”


Silva said he does not intend to vote in this election, as he feels neither candidate has offered anything substantive. “One is talking about the other, the other is talking about ladies,” he said. “They’re not talking about something for the country. I would like them to talk more about the students…. Not just for little kids, but for the people at universities.”

Michael Burns, the national director for Fair Elections Legal Network’s Campus Vote Project, noted voter registration as a major hurdle for the project, which works to support student voters. With limited states offering Election-Day registration and student voters being newer to the process, he said those who are not registered in states without such registration have to wait until the next election year.

“If you look at overall turnout rates, the states that are always in the top 10 for turnout almost always have Election-Day registration,” he said.

Burns said some states – “Tennessee and Wisconsin jump to mind, in my opinion” – have made voting more difficult for students, with restrictions regarding the use of student IDs and confusion over the exact requirements to vote that have led to misunderstandings for more than just students.

Kiesa observed, however, that youth voters are not confined to the collegiate setting.

“At any given point nationally, there’s not a majority of young people age 18 to 29 that are enrolled in campuses,” she said. “Unfortunately, campaigns and parties just focus on campuses.”

Though Kiesa stressed that there was no one issue likely to touch all youth voters, which are a diverse group, she said there were some factors related to youth voter turnout

“Even in presidential years, we see states that are not competitive in the presidential election and not competitive in the statewide election are likely to have lower youth voter turnout,” Kiesa said. “A state’s civic culture, sometimes their laws – as well as their competitiveness in elections matters.”

She argued the integration of young people into the democratic and civic processes is in need of improvement.

“That’s one thing that, outside of voting, I do not think we do a great job of that,” she said. “We often talk about teenagers as if they’re inherently flawed in some way- but from our perspective, there are brilliant young people doing great organizing.”

In the meantime, voters are left waiting and pondering the aftermath of the race. Polls show Clinton with a healthy lead, but swing states such as Florida and North Carolina could complicate those predictions.

“It’s made me really reconsider myself as a Democrat,” said Langer. Though she voted for Hillary, she did consider the Green party candidates.

Southerland, who is also a Hillary supporter, believes no matter the outcome, it will take a long time for the impact of the election to fade.

“Honestly, I don’t see it going well,” he said. “Whoever’s in office, for their first year, it’s going to be very difficult to get things done.”

Bell is somewhat more optimistic.

“I think everything is going to be fine,” she said. “I think Hillary will win, and I think it’s going to be fine… Trump supporters will be angry for a while but I think it will fade. But it will take longer.

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