Young people in Aspen have a problem showing up, at least when it comes to the recent city election.
Overall turnout among registered voters in the municipal May 7 election, when the mayoral field was winnowed to two and a pair of new City Council members were elected, was 36.6 percent, or 50 percent among active voters.
But the turnout number drops off significantly among the younger demographic in town, according to an analysis conducted by outgoing mayor and local political data expert Mick Ireland. Twenty-one percent of registered voters in their 30s came out to vote this month, with just 13.9 percent of eligible twentysomethings participating in the local election. In the 20-to-39 age bracket, total turnout was around 19 percent.
Compare that to septuagenarians — that’s people in their 70s — who turned out at a 61.6 percent clip, which was the highest of any age group. The 210 ballots cast by people in their 70s was higher than the 148 ballots cast by voters in their 20s.
“Older voters are much more connected with voting as a habit, and are much more connected to the city as a municipality than a young person,” Ireland said. “When you are a young person, you are not even certain you are going to be here.”
The likelihood of voting in the city election increased with age, according to Ireland’s data. Voters in their 40s turned out at a 37.7 percent rate; voters in their 50s saw 46.3 percent participation and turnout for those in their 60s was 57.5 percent.
“When you are older, you own property, it matters what the regulations are,” Ireland said, explaining people’s motivations to participate in a local election. “You have kids in school, you have more of a stake.”
It’s not that young Aspenites never vote. In the November election, 58.2 percent of locally registered twentysomethings cast their ballots on issues, such as who would be the next president and whether the state would legalize recreational marijuana. November turnout for thirtysomethings was 52.8 percent. But even then older voters were showing up at higher rates — voters in their 40s turned out at a 67.1 percent rate; 74.1 percent of voters in their 50s turned out; and turnout among people in their 60s and 70s was above 80 percent.
Aspen’s demographic trends — with census data showing fewer and older residents in most neighborhoods compared to 20 years ago — play into the young voter turnout story, Ireland said.
“The proportion of people who are young has declined,” he said. “Their numbers are smaller. They’ve sort of been gentrified out.
“When there are only 50 kids born in the city on an annual basis, that tells the whole story.”
With the lack of local political participation among young people — which is evident in observing who shows up at council meetings or who runs for office — civic leaders have been making attempts to engage the demographic. City Council has made reaching out to 20- to 40-year-olds one of its top 10 goals for the last two years, and a group of politically engaged young people formed the Aspen Democracy Initiative (ADI) last year in hopes of reaching out to their peers.
A “Next Generation Advisory Board” also is in its formative stages, may eventually have a quasi-official role with the city.
Jill Teehan, one of ADI’s co-founders, said she has been happy with the events the group has put on, hosting candidate forums in recent elections and convening panel discussions on local topics of interest. However, one of the toughest problems she has encountered has been getting actual young people to come to the events, she said.
Getting young people interested in politics is a nationwide problem, Teehan said, and not unique to Aspen. However, she said there is an “old guard” mentality among some that make up Aspen’s political class that imposes the idea that someone’s worth as a citizen is tied to how long they have lived here.
“It can be intimidating,” she said.
One practical lesson Teehan has learned in her outreach efforts is that “if you provide beer, they will come.” That is sad on the one hand, thinking that young people must be plied with alcohol to become interested, but on the other, at least it gets people in the door, Teehan said.
While all the efforts to boost young people’s voice in community affairs are commendable, Teehan also said locals shouldn’t need to have their hands held to participate.
“Democracy and participation in your government — we each have a personal responsibility to do that,” she said. “Democracy is a privilege that many people in the world don’t enjoy. It’s easy to take for granted.”
The mayoral runoff election, between councilmen Torre and Steve Skadron, is on June 4.