COLUMN: Young voters have important, unanswered questions after Election Day

This column was originally published in the Finger Lakes Times. Click on the image above, or on this link, to visit the Finger Lakes Times’ website, where you can subscribe to print, or digital access, and support fact-based, local journalism.

Election Day came and went, and we heard a lot about young people — as far as the impact they would have. But did they actually have much of an impact?

Following an election cycle as divisive as this most recent one, it is easier to ask “What did we miss?” In speaking with young people who live in the Finger Lakes leading up to Election Day, the consensus was clear: They didn’t feel they were that important.

They were harnessed by campaigns and candidates. A few “token young people” ran in Congressional races and were successful. Kudos to them and to those who got involved — helping with campaigns, running for office, or at the very least, voting.

That said, though, it seems several key issues for young people were missed. Issues were framed only in the context of young people’s lives — as that was politically convenient for candidates who were trying to win over highly educated, highly progressive or anti-groupthink voters. For a percentage of voters, that approach worked.

Even while turnout stats “soared” as some headlines have suggested, it isn’t turnout among young people on college campuses that worries me. College students will turn out more often than not because there are mechanisms on campus to ensure that they are in the “voting state of mind.”

Young people in rural, less-educated places? Those are the ones who, even if they have an education themselves, are so dissatisfied with things that they consider not voting at all.

I talked to some leading up to Election Day and then followed up with them afterward.

“They don’t get it, and they don’t seem to care,” one frustrated 20-something told me. I asked him if he would vote in the midterms or if he even had any preference between local candidates. He was despondent like a large chunk of the electorate.

There is an element of personal responsibility here. After all, if anyone wants to see change at any level, they must vote — or better yet, run for office and shape policy. The sad reality, though, is that our local committees don’t typically endorse them or take them seriously in the political arena.

If you don’t believe it, take stock of the average age of those who hold locally elected offices.

Ahead of a forum in October, while collecting questions from voters, I was able to canvas a small group of “semi-likely” voters. What were the questions on their minds for those running for state and federal seats?

Hint: It had nothing to do with Russia, China or the Middle East.

“Will Social Security and Medicare even exist when we retire?” asked one 22-year-old recent grad who is temporarily living at home as he searches for a job.

Another question on the minds of his friends after qualifying for the Excelsior Scholarship: “Is anyone going to fight to actually fix higher education?”

Despite qualifying for and taking advantage of the scholarship program, he still needed loans for 75 percent of his total cost associated with that year’s education. “That’s going to be a real problem for students and families when politicians are throwing around phrases like ‘free college,’” he added.

And, if you’re looking for another reason — beyond sheer frustration — that young voters aren’t getting out and engaging after turning 18, take a look at their lifestyle. I’m not talking about their habits, either. I’m talking about a lifestyle that includes working two, three or even four full-time jobs to make ends meet.

That doesn’t mean to pay the bar tab when they go out with friends on Friday or Saturday. It means to pay rent, ensure their transportation, and eat — anything, not just that trendy avocado-filled brunch boomers and Gen-X-ers love to point to on social media as a cause for all young people’s financial woes.

Two of the people I talked with had multiple jobs. One held three and the other four. It was a mixture of full-time, part-time, and freelance work.

Why? Because they had to.

And yet all they hear from elected officials or candidates is that they will work to fight for more jobs or better pay.

The sentiment: We don’t need more crappy- paying jobs or a better “false” minimum wage. If we don’t change the habits of corporate America and government, we will keep raising the bar on what those aforementioned groups are allowed to get away with.

“Will any candidate running for office ever give up the groupthink and identity politics?” asked another 20-something ahead of that forum. That was the moment I knew the conversation had come full circle. They are tired of the far-left and far-right and even moderate-left and moderate-right groupthink politics that dominate every aspect of our culture now.

They simply want better communities.

‘In Focus’ is a column authored by Josh Durso, and published in the Finger Lakes Times. His entire collection of columns can be read here. He serves as News Director for FingerLakes1.com, Inc. and hosts Inside the FLX, a streaming and radio program dedicated to discussing important issues of the day with newsmakers of all kinds. Follow him on Twitter (@FLXJosh) for his latest updates, interviews, and reporting.