“Why should young people vote in local primary elections?” Public education, climate change, civil rights, the justice system, taxes, services. Primaries are where most of the actual decisions in this city get made. “Why didn’t young people vote on Tuesday?” is the more interesting question.
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.
“Why should young people vote in local primary elections?” The answers are obvious: public education, climate change, civil rights, the justice system, taxes, services, and more. Primaries are where most of the actual decisions in this city get made.
“Why didn’t young people vote on Tuesday?” is the more interesting question.
At Young Involved Philadelphia, we are proud of the new census numbers that show that the 20-34 “young adult” demographic has grown from 20 percent to 26 percent of the city’s population. We’re tied with the kids under 20, meaning that 52 percent of the city’s residents are 34 or younger. So when only 9 percent of Philadelphia voters turn out for an election that, in effect, elected the chief fiscal watchdog of our city, it’s perfectly fair to ask us why our demographic — with our personal interest in the future of the city’s economy, neighborhoods, and schools — didn’t show up in droves.
The answer is credibility.
YIP is made up of a bunch of civically engaged geeks who spend our free time co-hosting candidate debates with public radio stations, but even we feel totally clueless when asked to cast votes for a dozen judicial candidates we’ve never heard of. All we know about the traffic court is that, apparently, getting to be friends with them will alleviate the abject fear and powerlessness we all feel toward the PPA. Putting traffic judges on the ballot makes us all feel uninformed and reduces the credibility of every other office that appears there.
The Democratic primary for city controller was the race that should have energized young voters on Tuesday. It didn’t.
Our parents, survivors of Vietnam and Watergate, confused us by quoting Jack Weinberg (who would have turned 73 last month): “Never trust anyone over 30.” For some Millennials, the first big national news event we remember was the fall of the Berlin Wall — definitive proof that Russia wasn’t nearly as scary as we’d been told by every textbook. For others, it involved a blue dress, even if we were too young to understand why. Beyond politics, our cynicism hardened early thanks to the people trying to sell to us since before we could walk. It was a sad day of lost illusions when we realized that Transformers and My Little Pony were actually just ads for Hasbro.
Born cynics, reared by skeptical parents, trained by society to mistrust even happy rainbow cartoon horses, Millennials developed detectors for insincerity, deceit, pretention, and lies unmatched in the history of human civilization. And those detectors are going off.
Few of us showed up on Tuesday because, in a city so fiscally challenged that it has to slash school budgets and the salaries of the teachers among us, we simply did not believe that this primary for the office of controller offered a shot at meaningful change. Our options were three veterans of that office, all straight white men over the age of 40, and they were presented on voting machines that appear to be significantly older than we are.
This isn’t an attack on Mr. Butkovitz, Mr. Mandel or Mr. Zecca. Each of them took time to reach out to younger voters and all took part in the debate that YIP hosted with WHYY and the Committee of Seventy. But talking to our generation only gets you so far. People vote when the political culture includes candidates who speak their language and share their concerns. Young people registered to vote and twice turned out in record numbers to vote for Barack Obama. Our demographic did so not because of “change we can believe in” but because of change we could see. Obama represented an obvious break from the past. He sounded and looked like one of us.
If our city’s political parties, elected officials, and civic leaders want us to vote (and they do, if they want Harrisburg to stop taking Philadelphia’s lunch money), then it is time to start putting more Millennials — in particular, more women, more people of color, and more LGBT leaders — on the ballot.
We know that nobody is going to give us power we haven’t earned and that the onus is really on us. We need to run for office, and we need to support each other when we do. Some see a 9 percent turnout as a shame, proof of the moral failings of our generation of voters. We encourage our generation to see it as an opportunity.
If 9 percent of the city turns out, you can win elections with 5 percent of the population. We already make up 26 percent of the city, so in the next decade, let’s take over 26 percent of the elected offices. That’s not change we can believe in, that’s change we can make.
Josh McNeil is chair of Young Involved Philadelphia.