Marching To Nowhere: Women Are More Politically Active, But Still Not Voting

In the Year of The Woman a new poll finds just 30% of young women will “definitely” vote in November. What will it take to get them to the polls?

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Ashley Johnson never took much interest in national politics at least, not until the 2016 presidential election pulled her into the fray. “It was such a big heated debate and people were so divided,” Johnson, now 26, said. “It was the first election I was really old enough to care about.”
She researched the political parties online, learning through quizzes that her views meant she was most likely a liberal, signed up for emails from leading Democratic candidates and groups in her state and started following more political news on Facebook. She decided Sen. Bernie Sanders was her man, and even after he lost the nomination she wrote his name in on Election Day.
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Today, Johnson considers herself more engaged in politics than ever, especially given her personal distaste for President Donald Trump. She spends more time reading the news, talks about the issues with friends and family and even threw candy for a local Democrat in a July 4 parade last year.
Despite her political awakening of sorts these past two years, she doesn’t plan to cast a ballot in the November midterms. “I just feel like my vote probably doesn’t make much of a difference,” the stay-at-home mom of three, who lives about an hour northwest of Portland, Oregon, said. “I don’t know enough about anyone running for House of Representatives to know if they would be a good representative for me.”
She’s not the only one who’s fired up about everything but midterms, it seems. A recent poll by Refinery29 and CBS News found that while an eye-popping 70% of women 18 to 35 believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, just 30% say they “definitely” plan to vote in the midterms. A mere 17% are “very enthusiastic” about casting their ballot. Just over half are either not planning to vote or haven’t decided yet.
That might come as a shock given that millennial women have been driving so much of the narrative around a potential Blue Wave this fall. This year, with tensions at an all-time high, the #MeToo fire raging through Capitol after Capitol, and control of Congress on the line, you would think that this would be the year young women would be more excited than ever to vote.
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It’s not that millennial women aren’t feeling engaged, and in some cases, enraged, over the state of politics (36% said they were “angry” about the Trump administration). Like Johnson, over a third of those surveyed said they are more motivated to get involved in politics. And they’re hungry for change — poll respondents want to see Democrats regain control of Congress by a margin of two-to-one. It’s also not for lack of trying: political parties and other groups are pouring millions into efforts to boost numbers among young voters, especially on the left. Just this week, NextGen America, an effort backed by Democratic mega donor Tom Steyer, announced plans to register 100,000 college students in one month. The group is spending $33 million to launch what it’s calling the “largest youth vote program in history.” The March For Our Lives kids just wrapped a 60-day voter registration tour focusing on first-time voters, and Planned Parenthood is spending more than $20 million, in the group’s largest midterm campaign effort, ever.
So what’s causing the disconnect? The main factor seems to be the (surprisingly stubborn) enthusiasm gap: Young people, historically, are unreliable voters. On top of that, midterm elections tend to attract much less attention — and fewer voters overall — than presidential cycles. Translation: Getting young voters to the polls for a midterm election has always proved challenging.
What’s more is that millennials in particular are known for low turnout even beyond the already low bar: Millennials have consistently failed to turn out at the same rate boomers did when they were young, according to an analysis by The Pew Research Center. In the 2014 midterms, a record-low year for turnout, just 22% of eligible millennials cast a ballot, Pew reports. (So in some ways, a 30% turnout among young women could actually be an improvement from years past.)
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With less than three months until Election Day 2018 (which is November 6, by the way), it’s looking like that trend will continue: 42% of young women polled by Refinery29 and CBS News said they either aren’t registered to vote or don’t know if they are. Of those, just 20% said they plan to register before November. The young women we polled also less likely than women older than 36 to say voting is the most important way to influence U.S. politics (52% vs 78%), with larger portions of millennials citing volunteering or donating to a cause or candidate or posting their views on social media as the most effective political acts.
The reasons for not planning to vote vary. Just under a third — 31% — may not vote because they straight up aren’t interested in politics or elections. Another 30% said they are either too busy or not a fan of the candidates who are running. And, even in a year filled with headlines about surprise upsets by underdog candidates and razor-thin win margins, nearly one in five say it’s because they think their vote doesn’t matter.
Cassie Tolman is one of those voters. The 24-year-old Independent from Utah stayed home in 2016 because she didn’t agree with either major party nominee. Now, she’s feeling more motivated to get involved in politics because of the negativity she sees in the news and the desire to try and help bring about change, including the country’s immigration system. But she also doesn’t think casting a ballot will do much toward those goals. “My voice doesn’t seem to make a difference at either level,” she wrote in an email. Even if her vote did influence the outcome of her state elections, she said she doesn’t think any of those individual politicians will be able to affect real change.
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Johnson, the stay-at-home mom from Oregon is also unconvinced that her vote matters. But for her, a dearth of information surrounding down-ballot candidates is the main deterrent. She said she didn’t know the “name of a single person I could even vote for in this election” It’s not for lack of trying. She hoped signing up for those political emails would give her more information. Instead, she estimates “19 out of 20” are just notes asking for money.
“I feel like if I had more education on the matter, I would vote but I don’t want to vote for the wrong person or just vote for my party because I’m supposed to,” she said. “I just want more information. You get a lot of information about who did what wrong but not a lot of look what good I’ve done and this is my policy.”
That sentiment of “I don’t deserve to vote unless I know a lot about candidates and issues” is a common one among young voters, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, who studies young voters as director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Changes in news consumption, coupled with the decline of local journalism, has created a vacuum where there’s “no real opportunity for them to hear about individual issues that’s going on in a community,” she said.
“I can see first-time voters in particular feeling completely overwhelmed. There’s not an outlet they can really trust that has comprehensive and accessible information,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “You can watch all the YouTube videos that candidates make, but those are not seen as a trustworthy source of information, because they of course come from an ulterior motive.”
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An open and, more importantly, constructive dialogue is something Johnson said she personally would welcome. “[The two sides] are always bad mouthing each other,” she said of her frustration with the current state of affairs. “It’s not just candidates and elections, but people I know in my life, who are no longer friends and can no longer post anything on Facebook without it blowing up into this huge argument.”
All of this explains why young voters feel disillusioned and disinterested but none of it changes the fact that voting remains the clearest, most consequential way to make change in a democracy. The good news: There’s still plenty of time for young women to change their minds.
Be sure to check out the full, illustrated results of the poll here. And tune into CBS This Morning for M[Y]Vote: a three-part series on the potential impact of young women on the midterms.
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