Gehrke: Are millennials really going to sit out this election?

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

It has come to this. I have become the stereotypical Angry Old Man.

I realized the transformation was complete last week, when I saw a recent Gallup poll that said just a whisker more than 1 in 4 young people is certain to vote in the upcoming election.

Dadgum millennials.

All summer long I read news stories (in the print edition, of course) that said, especially after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, things would be different.

Young people are energized like never before. They’re registering, they’re taking charge, they’re putting down their cellular telephone devices and spending less time buying avocado toast and more time changing the world.

So what happened? Seventy-four percent of them suddenly got distracted playing Fortnite? It’s enough to raise my blood pressure to a dangerous level for a man my age.

Look, I get it. I was young once and we didn’t vote much either. My first presidential election was 1992. We all empathized with a young mullet-headed Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” and were partying on with Wayne and Garth.

Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush that year and 52 percent of young people voted in that one — the highest level since 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1996, it dropped to 39 percent. I blame The Spice Girls.

Since then, the voting rate in presidential years for younger voters has consistently stayed in the mid-40s, only breaking 50 percent once, in the 2008 election. It looks like young voters are once again on pace to lag well behind their elders.

The voting rate for seniors, for example, has consistently been right around 70 percent throughout the decades. The recent Gallup survey said 82 percent of people over the age of 65 definitely plan to vote in the upcoming election — assuming they’re still around next month.

Turnout among young people is typically even worse in midterm elections like the one we face this year.

According to the Utah Colleges Exit Poll from 2014 (the last midterm election), younger voters made up 16 percent of respondents (and presumably 16 percent of the electorate), while seniors made up 30 percent.

And voting matters.

“A lot of young people don’t fully appreciate how much it affects them. Politics, they think it’s for old people,” said Adam Brown, a political science professor at Brigham Young University.

There’s a reason no politician will consider even for a half a heartbeat touching Medicare or Social Security — “The Third Rail” of politics, as it’s called — and issues like regulating predatory student lending and raising the minimum wage are nowhere on the political agenda, he said.

Locally it matters, too, he said. For example, older voters, who are more likely to own homes, influence zoning ordinances that dictate how the city approaches rental and lower-income housing.

Fortunately, there are folks who are trying to move the needle.

Sasha Luks-Morgan, president of the Young Democrats of Utah, said her group has been knocking on doors to get people registered and engaged and working with college chapters across the state to get registrations updated and absentee ballots mailed out.

She said that, especially among first-time voters — those around 18 or 19 years old — she has seen a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm. There is a sense, she said, that the older generations “have really screwed things up and it’s my job to come in and fix it.”

They’re not wrong. We kinda did that.

Fortunately, this year voting will be easier than ever.

Not only can people — young and old — register to vote online until Oct. 30, for the first time they can just show up at the polls (bring ID) and register on the spot. Vote-by-mail will be in place statewide, and if young people don’t have stamps (which is actually an obstacle to voting), you can drop off a ballot at your polling place.

It couldn’t be much easier to do. And, Brown said, once people vote, it becomes a habit. It’s part of the reason why older people, who have done it before, do it again and again.

There’s no reason 2018 shouldn’t be a record-setting year for the youth vote. So, no excuses. Go do it. Use that cellular telephone device and get registered already. Stay engaged.

And stay the hell off my lawn.