Recently I have been volunteering at my local High School to have discussions with students about the role of voting in our society. These discussions begin by talking about why people do not vote, making a list on the board. Then we ask. “What would need to change for people to vote?” and make an opposing list. My experiences have led me to understand that voting and civic engagement are especially relevant to the High School students of today so it makes for very engaging discussion. The purpose of the exercise is to help students understand that our political, social, and economic problems are solvable, but to begin solving these problems first requires imagining what these solutions could be. Leading these discussions have taught me some things about the perspective of modern youth and led me to the conclusion that voter apathy is just a symptom of a more significant problem, voter agency.
Agency is defined as the capacity for an individual to act within an environment. A person’s ability to express agency can be measured by a combination of accessible information, understanding of potential outcomes, and comparing the output of energy against the perceived benefit of said action. When a person has high agency, they typically understand the situation, understand the intentions or motives of the scenario, and after weighing both positive and negative aspects of the actions surrounding, proceed to act per their own best interest. Low agency demonstrates the opposite; low information or education about the subject, no real understanding of the pros and cons of action, and therefore the experience of indifference towards the scenario which leads to the choice of inaction. Apathy, therefore, is a byproduct of low-agency and if we’re going to increase voter participation in the 35 and under demographic, we need to address the root problem.
In each of the seminars, we begin the discussion with a group exercise talking about reasons why people may choose not to vote. Our experience with High School students has led to some consistent trends in the answers given to us. “Lack of Information”, also phrased as “I don’t know anything about the candidates” is the most popular, followed by “Inconvenience”, and depending on the group we usually end up with some combination of laziness, disliking both candidates which we label as “protest abstaining”, and not knowing where to participate. One idea that we expected to hear from the students but never did was, “It doesn’t affect me.” On the contrary, the students we’ve dealt with were acutely aware of that the issues of today are going to impact them in the future but often lack a real sense of the how which we dive into during the discussions. Reflecting on these experiences helped form our understanding of the real issue that was being told to us by the source. If they were merely apathetic about voting, we would assume that they understand the relevant information and benefits of casting an informed vote but choose not to do so. Instead we have a picture painted from the students that they desire to participate but have no idea about where or how to begin, indicating a lack of agency in the process which results in abstaining from participating.
Having identified the problems, we then transition into the second part of our seminars and ask the students what about our voting process would need to change for them to draw them to action. “Easier,” “Online,” and “Faster” (referring to their ability to learn about their choices) are the most commonly provided answers. We weren’t surprised that convenience and ease of access were the most common answers. As a collective, the Gen Z demographic has grown up with instant access to the world’s information from the convenience of their homes or phones. At the non-profit, I am working with we focus on the objective of increasing youth civic engagement and frame our problem-solving approach by trying to view the problem through the lens of the generation we are dealing with. The not-so-shocking truth is that attempting to entice the Gen Z demographic to vote via traditional methods, just does not resonate with their methods of learning, communicating, and acting. The solution, therefore, must be reformative, reimagining the process in a way that caters to the demographic that we seek to mobilize.
Reformations to our electoral process to mobilize youth voters can manifest in many different forms, but all will follow the same formula for success. Moving forward institutional reform will be directly tied to technological advancements, specifically platforms and tools that empower the individual. These solutions should focus on providing in-depth information on a platform focused on a user experience that makes access to use of said information as easy and convenient as possible. Our nonprofit organization is working on creating a platform which provides a centralized, convenient, and easy way to access quality information about candidates, and elected officials. We incorporate Likert Scale algorithms to create a Social Value Matching system that is similar to the matching components of popular dating websites. The platform enables youth voters to make data-driven voting decisions by answering sets of questions and having their percentage match displayed on a virtual ballot that shows users their candidates based on region and contest. Users can now understand who they should vote for without ever having read a single document from the candidate in question. Critics of our efforts argue that our efforts will be in vain and define the only measure of success as profoundly entrenched engagement. Our counter-argument is that it is unreasonable to expect someone with no interest in the political process to suddenly become deeply engaged due to a single solution. Instead, we are focusing on the next logical step from zero engagement, which we merely define as voting. By giving youth voters more agency over the process, we’re empowering them with the tools they need to go out and vote for someone that they know cares about the same issues they do. That is a paradigm shift.
Too often youth participation in our elections is often overlooked, despite the fact that the thirty-five and under voting block is now the most substantial in the United States. The formula of using tech to open up access and create agency among the youth in an easy and convenient format has the potential to shift our paradigm on civic engagement in modern society. One of the deepest wells of talent and transformative change in the U.S. lies dormant, waiting for visionaries to transform our antiquated institutions.
Originally posted on www.oursociety.org/blog