As millennials' interest in voting wanes, solutions sought to reengage them

FILE: Research shows that young people often don't seek out political information, but instead they stumble on it, many times via their smartphones.
FILE: Research shows that young people often don't seek out political information, but instead they stumble on it, many times via their smartphones.

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With less than a year to go before the 2016 presidential election, the race is on to capture the attention of one age group that's steadily lost interest in voting over the past two decades: young people. 

Although young voters helped drive Barack Obama's presidential election in 2008, their engagement has slipped since 2011, according to a Harvard Institute of Politics poll released Thursday. Less than half of the 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed said they were following the 2016 campaign.

"It’s a sad reality that we don’t care," said Juan Carlos Salas, a 29-year-old Los Angeles resident who works in Pasadena as a copy writer. 

Salas feels frustrated and cynical about politics. He said he hasn’t voted since Obama first ran for president and he no longer connects with the message of hope on which Obama had campaigned. 

"There’s a lot of sense of maybe betrayal, and there's a lot of sense of maybe things are never going to change. It’s just a cycle of just nonsense and garbage," he said. 

As for whom he might support for president, Salas said he likes what he hears from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but doesn’t know if he’ll cast a vote in 2016.

Salas is not alone in his thinking. Last year, just 8 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots in California's general election, the California Civic Engagement Project reported in a recent brief.

Research shows that millennials evaluate political candidates differently than earlier generations. One example: they often stumble upon information rather than seek it out.

According to a report from the Pew Research Center, Facebook is by far the top source for news about politics and government for millennials. The report found that they rely on Facebook to the same extent that baby boomers lean on local TV for political information. 

"I definitely pay attention to politics, primarily through Facebook," said 26-year-old Fullerton resident Megan Malone-Franklin. Malone-Franklin describes herself as an active voter, but said she understands why some people her age don't participate in the electoral process.

"You feel so small and you see such craziness happening," she said."It gets really difficult to feel like it's worth putting out the effort when you know how little your vote matters."

What could get millennials drawn back into the process? Salas said his peers could be the answer. If more millennials were involved in politics, he said, he’d find it easier to relate.

Twenty-five-year-old Hunter Scarborough of Calabasas is betting technology can be part of the solution.

He's launched a new iPhone app called Voter targeted at millennials. The app is based on the dating app Tinder's left and right swipes and guides users through a series of questions to help match them with political candidates aligned with their views. Support legalizing marijuana? Swipe right for yes, swipe left if you oppose it.

Courtesy of Voter

After a user has indicated a position on several of issues, the app analyzes the answers and compares them against positions of the presidential candidates, and assigns a matching percentage to each.

The app takes advantage of young users' attachment to their smartphones.

"A phone in a lot of ways can be a big distraction," Scarborough said. "If you're distracted by your phone but you're using Voter, at least it's a distraction with some sort of like concrete benefit to it."

Scarborough admits he spends way too much time on his phone — often checking Facebook or Instagram, or listening to surfing podcasts. He doesn't particularly care about politics, he admits, but wanted to create something that would help people his age quickly get informed. 

As he puts it, he's his own target audience.