Quick Hit Op-Ed Monday March 21st, 2016, 1:28pm

Op-Ed: Young Voters Demonstrate Electoral Power In Illinois

The following is written by Brenna Conway and Imani Marshall of the Roosevelt Institute

Young people in Illinois voted in record high numbers last week for the most competitive presidential primary race in their lifetime. Their votes made a difference and the engagement they demonstrated was powerful - they lead local activist movements, drove election-defining issues, and followed up with their votes. Still trying to figure out what's guiding the youth vote? Debating whether they'll make the difference in November? Just look at Illinois.

Locally, young Democrats and Republicans came out in even larger numbers than they did for Illinois's 2008 primary. Twelve percent of Republican voters and 17% of Democratic voters were under twenty-nine years old, while overall youth turnout here increased to 26% - greatly surpassing the previous record of 18% in 2008 .

Trump's UIC rally-that-wasn't on Friday, March 11th at UIC was a prime example of how youth engagement shaped the election here.  With thousands of protesters present, the anti-protest sentiment witnessed at many Trump rallies, like Fayetteville, North Carolina , was met with equal passion from local organizers.

Two ideologically opposite groups-both unhappy with the status quo-clashed at this rally, reflecting the political undercurrent of the 2016 election cycle: deep dissatisfaction. Young people were present amongst both Trump supporters and protesters, showing that on both sides of the aisle young Americans are unhappy with the current state of affairs and see this election as a decisive moment.

Illinois' local elections tell us even more about the policies driving young people's votes. Overwhelmingly, Millennials are saying a focus on human rights - political and legal systems that serve the interest of diverse communities - is guiding their vote this year.

We saw the impact of this in the race between Kim Foxx and Anita Alvarez for Cook County State's attorney. For months this race has been tied to strained police/community relations in Chicago, and the Laquan McDonald case figured heavily into Alvarez's loss this week.

From BYP 100 and Black Lives Matter activists to Reclaim Chicago, young people demonstrated that it matters who writes the rules, not just what rules are written. Young people want a seat at the table in policy decisions, and clearly have the power to demand it.

Despite this show of youth power, Illinois' democratic systems still have a way to go to maximize millennial participation. Across the country, 64% of young people identified money in politics as a top issue for 2016 according to Roosevelt's Next Generation Blueprint for 2016, a manifesto to the youth vote built by 1,000 young people nationwide. Unfortunately, the influence of money in Illinois' races is only getting worse. In the tenth Congressional District, consistently home to one of the nation's most expensive races, Democratic newcomer Nancy Rotering spent nearly $1 million this session. Rotering's victorious opponent, former Congressman Brad Schneider, spent nearly $1.5 million.  We also saw the most expensive State Representative race in history: the contest between Rep. Ken Dunkin and challenger Julia Stratton cost over $5 million.

A focus on structural reforms for our electoral system has improved young voter enfranchisement in Illinois. This was the first year where Illinois voters could register at the polls and the first year where young people who will be 18 by Election Day could vote in the primary, even at 17 years old. The value of such reforms is clear from the high youth voting rates. Roosevelt's Blueprint challenges elected officials to go one step further suggesting reforms like lowering the voting age to 16 in municipal and state elections or implementing automatic voter registration.

It's a shame the Illinois primary isn't always this competitive - our diversity, education backgrounds, and income mirror the country better than almost any other state. But, Tuesday'sprimary should help dispense with the myth that young people are disengaged. Dissatisfaction with the rules and who writes them have led to increased participation on the ground and in the ballot box. With continued reforms targeted at increasing participation among our diverse electorate, we will continue to see increases in engagement.

Brenna Conway is the Illinois Director for the Roosevelt Institute -- Campus Network. A resident of Chicago, Imani Marshall is the chapter head at Roosevelt's Amherst College chapter. 


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