Candidates woo millennials, but few are voting

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A student walks across campus at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach on Wednesday, Sept. 29. (Kate Mishkin/Southside Daily)

About an hour before a candidates’  forum at Tidewater Community College Wednesday, a student walked across the Virginia Beach campus, checking her phone. (Kate Mishkin/Southside Daily)

When Virginia Beach City Council candidates spoke at Tidewater Community College Wednesday night, they talked about millennials. Two of the contenders,  Courtney LaLonde and Pam Witham, identified themselves as millennials. Incumbent Rosemary Wilson talked about raising them.

Topics of discussion included the light rail, affordable housing and retaining young people, all of which have been pegged as millennial issues.

“We’re all millennials,” moderator Joel Rubin quipped during the forum.

But a show of hands halfway through the event revealed that fewer than 10 millennials had actually shown up to listen and participate.

It’s not an issue unique to Virginia Beach. Candidates across the country have struggled to get millennials to show up at the polls. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, fewer than a quarter of voters ages 18 to 29 showed up at the polls in 2010. Current presidential candidates are still trying to appeal to the youth vote.

“For some reason, millennials don’t seem to have the energy to come out, maybe because they feel a little jaded by the system as far as their needs being met,” said Todd Smith, president of the Student Government Association on TCC’s Virginia Beach campus.

Wednesday’s candidate forum was hosted by TCC’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society for two-year colleges. It was billed as a chance for political aspirants, who are vying to win four contested spots on the council, to discuss a variety of issues facing the city. The event attracted 13 candidates.

Which means there were more candidates for office than millennials in the audience.

It’s not a new problem for Sally Daniel, president of the American Association of University Women’s Virginia Beach chapter, which aims to empower women through legal advocacy, salary negotiation workshops and other programs.

On Wednesday, the AAUW registered voters before the forum. Sally Daniels and member Lorrie Ames stood with a poster, handing out the fruit-flavored candy known as Laffy Taffy — a tactic that’s proven to work, they said. They recently registered 118 TCC students and 23 from Virginia Wesleyan. The latter pose a more peculiar problem for voter registration: Virginia Wesleyan’s campus straddles the Norfolk-Virginia Beach line, and most dorms are in Virginia Beach.

But it’s hard to get young people to vote, Daniels said. They tell her they’re not interested in politics. They like other things, like hiking.

“Well, do you like state or federal parks?” Daniels asks them. “Pell grants, hiking, it’s all voting.”

When young voters tell her their vote doesn’t count, she reminds them that Virginia’s a swing state.

“Do you want to go down swinging, or stay out?” she said.

Tim Cywinski, communications director for Virginia21, a Richmond-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of millennials, said the stereotypes may not be true — millennials are more informed and active than ever.

But for local elections?

“That’s when we see a little bit of a drop off,” he said. Young people are much more focused on federal issues.

The low turnout Wednesday night isn’t a bad thing, he said. That the forum was held by a student organization at a community college is enough to send a message to lawmakers. He predicts a better turnout closer to the election.

Phi Theta Kappa recognizes a problem with historically low voter turnout, TCC chapter President Nikki Duncan-Talley said. The 2015 state election saw an especially low voter turnout, she said. That’s why the honor society sponsored the candidates’ forum.

“So we wanted to do this in order to give them an education about who’s running so that they can feel more connected,” Duncan-Talley said. “Because I know that’s one of those things that seems to be lacking.”

Millennials might be more willing to go vote if they did it in groups, said Mariah Johnson, who serves as the Student Government Association’s vice president.

“Like, hey guys let’s all vote and get coffee,” Johnson said.

Daniels remembers a time when young people had to wait until they were 21 to vote and were eager to start voicing their opinions.

“This is your superpower,” Daniels said. “If you could fly, would you just choose not to?”

When she registers young people to vote, she shakes their hands.

“Welcome to adulthood,” she tells them.

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