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Local Politics and the Malaise of the Millennials

The statistics on their participation in community life and elections are dismal. There's no one-size-fits-all fix.

Nevada Election
People who are 65 years or older are 19 times more likely to vote in local elections than 18 to 34 year olds.
(AP/Cathleen Allison)
Researchers at Oregon's Portland State University released a report this summer outlining patterns among voters in local elections utilizing voting data from four cities: Charlotte, Detroit, Portland and Saint Paul. Unsurprisingly, they found that most people are not voting in local elections. Only about 30 percent of registered voters cast their ballots for mayor in the course of the study.

The most striking conclusions from the report, however, highlight the huge gap in voter-participation rates between younger and older voters. The odds of a voter aged 65 or older casting a ballot in a mayoral election compared to a voter aged 18-34 were as high as 19 to 1 in the primary and 13.8 to 1 in the general election. Even more distressing is that these voting-odds ratios were commonly as high as 20 to 50 to 1 in some of the four cities' census tracts.

What accounts for these dismal statistics, and what can be done to address it?

A number of articles in Governing and elsewhere have explored the shifting expectations about civic participation and civic engagement among millennials, including the ways that millennials' attitudes will bear on public leadership and cities' efforts to attract millennials as residents. But these pieces don't explore the relationship between dismal youth turnout in local elections and efforts to engage younger residents in the civic, political and economic life of their communities.

Understanding the complexities shaping voting and civic participation patterns among young residents is daunting. Identifying the problem presents the first challenge: Are people not getting involved because they don't recognize an entry point? Do they distrust local government and resist involvement? Or do they feel disconnected from the community, as a college student or transplant might, and choose to forego the investment that civic participation often entails.

Furthermore, while the term "millennial" is applied as a sweeping generalization, the fact is that millennials are the most diverse generational cohort in the United States. Developing a realistic or coherent millennial archetype defies convention, even within a single city or region. Trying to find the single perfect remedy for millennials' political malaise is similarly unrealistic.

There are some promising efforts underway to try to tease out answers to some of these questions. At the Jefferson Center, our "Up for Debate Akron" initiative (which is supported by the Knight News Challenge on Elections) seeks to determine what young residents of that Ohio city know about local government, what they want to hear from candidates for local office, where they want to find information, and how to present that information so that young residents can see their ideas and priorities reflected in mayoral candidates' campaign messages and policy proposals. Another effort, "Text, Talk, Vote" from the National Institute for Civic Discourse, aims to engage young voters by providing tools to discuss local politics and voting through a localized mobile platform. Elsewhere, the Young Voters Initiative aims to foster stronger relationships between young voters and elected officials.

These efforts -- each of which utilizes a unique platform, technology or process -- constitute a thin slice of the programming dedicated to developing meaningful avenues for engaging young residents in civic and political life. All of them have the same goal, however: to better understand how governments can share information so that young residents see themselves as a part of their communities and want to get involved.

But that's just one approach, and that is precisely the point: A one-size-fits-all approach to building millennial engagement simply won't work. Millennials are too diverse. Rather than searching for the silver-bullet app or perfect platform that will attract millennials to civic life en masse, the key to developing millennial engagement stems from the axiom that all politics is local. Getting millennials involved -- and keeping them involved -- requires new engagement strategies that are tailored both to specific local concerns and to the millennial population in all of its diversity.

Executive director of the Jefferson Center
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