Awakening Millennial Voters

Under The Hood

Note: Jacob Ogles will lead a detailed analysis of the Aug. 30 election results at SRQ’s Where The Votes Are, on Tuesday. Doors open at 7:45am, with the presentation at 8am. The event will be held at 331 South Pineapple Ave., Sarasota.

As workforce development becomes an overriding topic du jour for the Gulf Coast’s business leaders, young professionals get cited as a coveted asset. To get skilled workers in their 20s engaged in regional commerce, experts hope, will keep talent from leaving the region. However, voter statistics show those 20-somethings that are here remain disengaged in local politics, a bad sign for the future.

Scrutinizing returns for the August 30 primary, when voters in both parties could weigh in on US and Florida Senate contests and where all voters in Sarasota County could vote in an important School Board race, voters in their 20s underperformed every other age demographic. Only 1,622 voters ages 20 to 29 cast ballots, a turnout of less than 5.6 percent. In comparison, 22,205 voters in their 70s participated, a turnout greater than 41.9 percent. That’s right. For every 20-something voter, there were almost 14 voters in their 70s.  Poring over election returns here for the past seven years, the same depressing story repeats itself each time. Sure, young voters come out for presidential contests, but to convince voters to care about a Congressional primary, much less a hospital board election, seems impossible even if you put a Pokémon in every booth.

The easy thing to do is blame young people. They aren’t diligent and didn’t take civics classes, and they choose to stay at home instead of taking a few minutes to vote. Why, if they just stopped complaining on social media, they could make a difference. And can’t they take those ear buds out while they run on our roads? I’m driving here.

But lecturing Millennials sounds as condescending as it is. It also ignores the deeper issue, that these voters potentially may living with the consequences of elections for decades longer than seniors, but they don't plan on it. Young professionals don’t believe they will stay on the Gulf Coast for that long.

Consider our turnout among registered voters age 100 or older nearly doubled that of those under 30. Yes, 10.11 percent of Centenarians came out for the primary. It's not a big group, but those 36 voters represent a voter block bigger than some precincts. These voters expect to live the rest of their lives in this community. So do voters in their 90s, 80s and 70s, and all of these age groups turned out at rates greater than 30 percent. You can retire to the Suncoast and spend the rest of your days here, and tens of thousands of voters do.

Meanwhile, college graduates can find internships and even entry-level positions on the Gulf Coast, but the best paid among them have trouble finding apartments that rent for less than $2,000, as a Young Professionals Group survey recently discovered. And as YPG Government Issues chair Robert Young recently told me, if you are constantly looking for a place to move that’s in your price range, it’s just as easy to look in Tampa or St. Pete. Or Austin. Or Seattle. It’s difficult to move up a professional ladder in Sarasota. For many, it’s easier to find a better job in another market than to attain a meaningful promotion at their current place of work.

Getting young voters engaged has built-in challenges here. Sarasota County has 151,764 registered voters over the age of 60, more than half. That’s bigger than any political party, so young people already feel outnumbered. But if they can see a future for themselves on the Gulf Coast, they are more likely to try and shape it.

 Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor of SRQ Media Group.

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