(Editors Note: This report is part of a project on voting rights produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. It has been edited for length and includes additional reporting on Orange County by Voice of OC. Click here to read the original version of this article and the complete project, titled “Voting Wars — Rights/Power/Privilege.”)
Millennials get a bad rap when it comes to voting. They’re labeled narcissistic, self-absorbed and apathetic. (Just look at their nicknames: the selfie generation, generation me, the unemployables.)
And they’re the least likely generation to turn up at the polls this November.
However, many young Americans do care about politics. They may just show it differently than their more-traditional parents.
As of April, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were about 69.2 million millennials, roughly defined as Americans age 18 to 35, in the U.S. electorate, according to a Pew Research Center study. This group makes up about a third of the voting-age population, matching the baby boomers.
And that means they have the potential to strongly influence upcoming elections. But will they?
They differ from previous generations, both socially and politically.
Millennials are more diverse than any generation before them. According to 2014 census data, 44 percent of them identify as nonwhite.
Elli Denison, director of research for the Center for Generational Kinetics, a Texas-based consulting firm that specializes in generational research, said millennials have grown up with diversity and celebrate it.
“They really value that,” Denison said. “They look at a group of people and think ‘Oh, dear, we all look the same.’” And that troubles them.
Mike Hais, co-author of the book “Millennial Majority: How a New Coalition is Remaking American Politics,” agreed. He said this diversity has led to the generation being more accepting, which affects their political views.
“They tend to be the most socially tolerant generation in America,” Hais said. “Immigration, gay rights and the like, for all the reasons, their attitudes tend to be progressive and tolerant. They really are, in that sense, a very distinctive generation.”
Those distinctions don’t always correlate along party lines, either. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 44 percent of millennials identify as independents, while 28 percent identify as Democrats and 19 percent Republicans.
Hais also called the millennials “the most female-driven generation in American history” thanks to high enrollment numbers for women in college. In 2015, about 11.5 million women were expected to attend colleges and universities, compared with 8.7 million men, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Joan Kuhl, founder of the site WhyMillennialsMatter.com, said the millennial generation is “the most educated generation yet.”
But the increases in educational attainment comes at a price. This generation has high levels of college debt, another factor in the millennial puzzle, Kuhl said. It’s also a reason, she said, this generation gets saddled with the “entitled” label.
“‘Entitled’ is misunderstanding the debt piece,” Kuhl said. “They say, ‘I want financial security. I want steady increases in pay because I want to get my feet on the ground, not because I want to spend it on silly things.’
Kuhl added: “The people who are most offended by millennials acting entitled is other millennials who don’t feel entitled.”
Leon Cisneros, a 23-year-old from Anaheim and a graduate of Cal State Fullerton, says those who believe his generation is entitled don’t understand the tough job market millennials are facing.
“Right now I’m working forty hours a week and can’t move out of my parents’ home. I can’t help them out” because I’m too poor, Cisneros said. “And I try to better myself, going to school, getting good grades…we’re not entitled, we want the opportunity because the opportunity isn’t here any more.”
Kuhl said the entitled label actually isn’t the most damaging stereotype about this generation: It’s the belief they are “job hoppers.” She said companies have shown reluctance to train and invest in millennials since they think they’ll move on to a new job.
“They think, ‘I’m just going to make them figure it out on their own,” Kuhl said. “But in reality, millennials are thinking ‘I’m looking for intellectual growth. I want to be a contributor here.’ They are actually a pretty loyal generation.”
Some data suggest otherwise. The 2016 Gallup report on millennials indicated that 21 percent of millennials reported changing jobs within the previous year – more than three times the number of nonmillennials. The report also said the majority of millennials weren’t engaged with their job or company.
On the personal front, millennials are waiting the longest of any of the grown generations to get married and have their own home. According another Pew Research Center study and census data on millennials, 32.1 percent lived with their parents, and 57 percent were married by age 30. In comparison, 90 percent of 30-year-olds lived on their own, and 89 percent had married in 1975.
They vote less often than other generations (to be paired with barriers map)
Millennials consistently have the lowest election turnout among all generations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 17.1 percent of 18- to-24-year-olds voted in 2014, compared with 59.4 percent of those 65 and older.
Why? Some experts on the generation said one of the most prevalent reasons is that millennials tend to move around – a lot.
At some point in their lives, 51 percent of millennials moved for employment, 46 percent moved for or to find a romantic partner, and 44 percent had moved for family, according to a study of 1,000 people between the ages of 18-35 from the moving company Mayflower.
This constant moving around often means re-registering to vote or requesting absentee ballots. However, the 50 states and thousands of counties have different rules, which can lead to confusion.
Some states also passed legislation that seem to target millennials, said Russell Dalton, a political science professor at University of California, Irvine, and author of the book “The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics.” This includes forcing people to register in person the first time, shortening registration windows, refusing to accept student ID cards or rejecting certain documents as proof of residency.
“There is a whole set of institutional reforms that if politicians wanted to get young people to vote, they could,” Dalton said. “But politicians are happy with the status quo.”
Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator and researcher for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, said several barriers keep young people from voting. Along with the legislative hurdles, Kiesa said communities don’t often reach out.
“We don’t do a very good job as a country in integrating and welcoming young people into democratic process,” Kiesa said.
Moumita Ahmed, co-founder of the group Millennials for Bernie (a group that supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for president), agreed. She said she’s seen her peers struggle with all the steps involved in the registration process.
“Many of us aren’t registered because the current election laws are terrible,” Ahmed said. “It is actually really difficult, even when you do register, to process the entire thing.”
However, even when states and jurisdictions do make it easy to register and vote, it doesn’t necessarily mean millennials will make it to the polls.
A Lack of Trust in the System
Millennials often describe themselves as disillusioned and distrustful of the political system. Ryan Keating, a 33-year-old self-described drug policy reform activist from Salt Lake City, said the political system makes millennials feel like they are being talked at, not to. And no one is trying to fix millennial issues.
“Why would millennials be trustful of this system?” Keating said. “It would be hard to come up with the reasons.”
According to a 2016 poll by the Harvard University Institute of Politics, 47 percent of millennials feel that America is heading on the wrong track, and 48 percent agree that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.”
Millennials also lack faith in the traditional two-party system, which is why so many are independent.
“I have no party loyalty to the Democrats – zero,” Keating said. “I wish I had a party I could identify with.”
Cisneros, who interned for congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and is now working for Jose F. Moreno, a candidate for the Anaheim City Council in November, said he once described himself as a Democrat but no longer wants to be associated with the party.
Cisneros is frustrated when he sees the Orange County Democratic Party endorsing candidates who he believes have policy positions and voting records contrary to the party’s values.
“I’ve had mentors who told me ‘if you want to make a difference, you have to play the game,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to play the game.’ I’m always back and forth,” Cisneros said.
Political strategist Luke Macias, CEO of Macias Strategies LLC, said millennials just aren’t as connected to local governments as older generations, so they don’t see the value in voting.
“There is a level of apathy in millennials, but the baby boomers were apathetic at 18 too,” Macias said. “I don’t think most millennials see the impact an elected official has on their lives, and as they get older and get more involved, they’ll see that these elected officials are the ones making the decisions.”
They care about a wide range of issues (To be paired with 100 issues “pinterest-style” pics)
Because millennials tend to distrust politicians, they often pay more attention and spend their time on issues rather than parties. Maurice Forbes, the youth vote director for NextGen Climate in Nevada, said he sees this trend with college students.
“I hear a lot from theses campuses across Nevada that ‘I care about these specific issues that are going to be affecting me and less so about a particular candidate that is expressing their views on that,’” Forbes said.
A Different Media Diet
Millennials don’t necessarily consume news and information the same way previous generations did – from the nightly broadcast news or the daily newspaper. But that doesn’t mean millennials don’t care about the world, according to a study by the Media Insight Project.
In fact, the study suggested that millennials’ access to technology and social-media platforms has actually widened their awareness of issues. “Millennials also appear to be drawn into news that they might otherwise have ignored because peers are recommending and contextualizing it for them on social networks, as well as on more private networks such as group texts and instant messaging,” the study said.
Harvard student Kevin Sani, a member of the group that launched the college’s 2016 political poll, said this constant access to media actually creates a polarization among millennials because they gravitate toward information and sources they care about.
“Nobody really wants to read news that disagrees with them,” Sani said. “We all want news that agrees with us as a confirmation of our own beliefs, so that can further enhance the echo chamber effect.”
Recent national polls have indicated millennials often care most about the same issues other generations do: No. 1 being the economy (jobs, minimum wage, paid leave), according to a USA Today/Rock the Vote poll.
Money issues also play a big role in their lives, and college affordability and student debt was the second most popular answer. Other top issues included foreign policy and terrorism, health care, guns and climate change, according to the poll.
Millennials define citizenship not as voting, “but being concerned about other people,” Dalton said. And they often show that concern by volunteering.
According to an Associated Press poll of 1,044 adults, 29 percent of Americans under the age of 30 agreed that citizens have a “very important obligation” to volunteer. Comparatively, in a 1984 University of Chicago survey of 1,441 adults, only 19 percent agreed.
“Millennials are probably the most involved generation in history in causes and nonprofit endeavors and community involvement,” Hais said. “They do tend to want to think globally and think about global issues and believe that those problems can be solved at the local level rather than depending on huge government programs to try to solve issues.”
Voice of OC reporter Thy Vo contributed to this article. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.