Images: Ed Elson

The Great Enemy of Justice: Our Attention Spans

Why aren’t we voting out racism? Voting is boring.


We young people talk an awful big game about reform, but our voter turnout numbers are pathetic. When Trump got elected, 18–29 year-olds hit 41% while 60+ year-olds hit 70%. Two years earlier only 18% of us voted, the lowest in over 30 years. In this year’s Democratic primaries, we did not exceed 20% in a single state. And people wonder how our two Presidential candidates are over 70: in a representative democracy, the candidates represent their voters. The voters are old.

At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of calls to action among young people on Instagram. But let’s get one thing clear: protesting is speech, not action. It raises awareness to change things. But it doesn’t itself change things. To do that, we have to vote.

And I don’t mean vote for Biden. The President’s job is mostly to define the general message of the U.S. — speech, not action. I mean vote locally. Down-ballots. That’s how you actually change things on the ground. Take it from Stacey Abrams, who lays out exactly why.

So why aren’t young people voting? We’re clearly not lacking in passion or initiative. As recent protests have shown, we’re phenomenally proactive. But despite our drive, old people wipe us clean at the booth every. Damn. Cycle. What are we missing? You guessed it:

Our attention spans are dog-shit.

Remember how we’re all on Adderall? Yep. To make a knowledgeable vote in local elections, you must first read up on the candidates. Then find out who aligns with your views. Then stay up-to-date on the election cycles. Something-something-something, too boring to explain, then cast your vote.

This reading-heavy, research-based, ten-step type of process is built for the 70-year-old brain. Grandpa reads the instruction manual before setting up the TV. You YouTube it. Grandma checks the nutritional facts before buying the dog-food. You react to the logo. And so on. Technology has made us experts at drowning out slow-and-boring noise. That’s why we struggle to vote:

Because 18–29 year-old brains reject boredom, and voting requires it.

I emphasize that this is not our fault. Again, we’re not lazy. Look at how we’ve taken to the streets. But voting is slow, and the 21st-century economy has condemned us to a life of eternal ADD. What makes a Facebook ad effective is not a clever slogan — it’s BRIGHT COLORS. Successful movies: CATCHY RE-BOOTS. Even better, Quibi: 10 MINS LONG. Good tweets: SHORT. Etc. Our short-term reptilian brain instincts have been hacked by tech. Navigating the internet is impossible if you try to read everything, because it’s designed for an ADD-brain. That’s why grandma can’t figure it out. But she can figure out how to get to the booth on time. And you’re awful at it.

“The reptilian brain is the true decision-maker.” — Selena Nemorin

So, as whiny and millennial as this may sound, the fact is that the voting system is rigged against us. Local politics is too boring for us. “Too boring,” as in: it is neurologically incompatible with the attention span of our brains. How do we fix this?

Well, telling young people to vote in local and state elections won’t work. As Instagram proves, keeping a young brain engaged in a platform requires massive amounts of research and funding. Time to think like Instagram:

Time to make a voting app.

We need to vote from our phones. We need push notifications on election cycles. We need shiny, clickable links to local campaigns. We need one-minute Daily-Mail-esque run-downs on candidate’s policies for reform. Basically:

Voting locally should be as easy as Venmoing money to a bail-out fund.

BUT WHAT ABOUT VOTING SECURITY? Oh, give me a break. Invest tax-dollars in making it secure. Hire a million programmers for all I care. If you’re down to put $6bn in a concrete-wall to keep immigrants out, you should be down to put $6bn in a fire-wall to make your voting system work.

Still not down? Fine. How about this:

Put an Instagram pop-up next to the voting booth.

“I VOTED” stickers aren’t good enough. And by the way, we don’t care about putting those on our t-shirts. We care about putting them on our stories. So play the damn game, America:

Make voting Instagrammable.

That means putting “I VOTED” photo op pop-ups right next to the booth. Even better, a “#BlackLivesMatter” pop-up. I don’t care if you think it’s facetious. If it makes people vote for candidates who will actually hold our institutions to standards of basic racial justice, then do it. Make different mood-rooms for us to take pictures in, like Refinery29 did. Hire TikTok stars to do meet-and-greets once you’ve voted. Make a scannable QR-code for an “I VOTED” Snapchat filter that can only be accessed at the booth. Do whatever you need to do — I really don’t care. So long as 18–29 year-olds show up.

This, but voting edition (“29Rooms” by Refinery29).

Still too millennial for you? Then here’s something old people have already pitched:

Implement mail-in voting.

There’s a reason Trump is freaking out about this. It means more young people will vote. Why? Less slow. Less boring. Mailing-in eliminates at least five of the fifty exhausting steps you have to take in between the act of caring and the act of voting.

Disclaimer: this won’t completely fix young voter turnout. Sending mail is still extremely counter-intuitive to our efficiency-obsessed brains. But it‘s better than voting in person. The Corona pandemic is a great opportunity to push this through. We can leverage the fact that in-person voting is too dangerous. Again, I don’t care that it’s leverage. It’s worth doing.

That’s three solutions, but there are more.

Let’s think on how we can increase young voter turnout. In the mean time, I’m going to start figuring out how to make the voting app. If you want to help me out, send me a message. If you know someone who might be interested, share this with them. I’ll need lots of programmers and lots of people who care about bringing racial justice to America. I know you’re out there.