The Hamilton Live, a Washington, D.C., nightclub, is unrecognizable on election night. One hundred twenty-two high school students from 11 states, not to mention the 30 from Mexico, fill the bottom floor of the Hamilton usually packed for late night R&B and blues.
This watch party is the culmination of the second day of an election week program run by the Close Up Foundation, an organization that seeks to teach students to be engaged citizens.
The atmosphere is fairly sedate for a room full of teenagers away from their parents on a school night. They don’t react to the projections coming in on the big screen in front of them. To their credit, they’re focused on speakers Matt Robbins, of the conservative organizing non-profit American Majority, and Christian Dorsey, of the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute, presenting a Republican and Democrat point of view, respectively.
Robbins keeps asking if the students have questions about how things really run in Washington. Although many of the students are still a couple years away from participating in elections, they are more concerned with voting rights than the behind-the-scenes details of national politics.
A student who identifies himself as Colin from Dallas asks whether, despite what Republicans have said to the contrary, the new voter restriction laws are disenfranchising people.
“When you look at the way things are actually done in America, almost every transaction, I can’t think of one that doesn’t involve some form of ID,” says Robbins, citing Attorney General Eric Holder’s town hall meetings in Ferguson, which required photo ID for entry. “I’ll let you chew on that.”
But they don’t let up that easily. After a comment from Robbins about Louisiana’s corrupt politics, another Dallas student yells out: “Speaking of corruption, how you do feel about Rick Perry in Texas?”
In addition to the large Texas contingent, groups from Kansas and North Carolina—states where the races for U.S. Senate are hotly contested—are present, as well. In Kansas, incumbent Governor Sam Brownback is also on shaky ground as he tries to hold on to his office.
“We’re feeling really nervous,” says 17-year-old Victoria Sparkman from Topeka. “I think a lot of Kansans are ready for some change. I know a lot of younger people are not happy with how Sam Brownback has run our state for the past four years, so everyone’s really excited to see how things turn out.” (By the night's end, it becomes apparent that young Kansans will have to wait another four years for that change to take place.)
Mason* is one of the few students at the watch party who was eligible to vote in the midterm elections. But in his home state of North Carolina, where the race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis ended in a narrow Republican win, he decided not to cast a vote for either candidate.
“I don’t want to put my vote 100-percent behind someone that I don’t have total faith in,” he says. “I didn’t really like what they both had to say, with both their economic policies, like school cuts and stuff like that.”
This is undoubtedly a different generation, and the age gap is apparent between the students and their teachers. During the last round of trivia, students shout out answers to a mix of pop culture and politics. When the emcee asks what popular show Senator Al Franken used to star on, the shouting stops.
While these students are at the tail end of the millennial generation, they will increase the number of voting-eligible millennials to 81 million in 2016 and 90 million in 2020. Despite the hype that millennials will lean ever more libertarian, most of the students I speak to at the watch party see their peers becoming more liberal.
“This is my generation—I’m starting to see more people go independent or even liberal, even in Georgia, so it’s just going to take a bit of time, and I’m hopeful it’ll turn out sooner,” says Georgia student Emily Beeland.
The North Carolina contingent would disagree. “With every passing generation we’re going more liberal I feel like, but you could ask Jake* here and he would say the exact opposite,” says Mason, to whom Jake vehemently insists that his generation will become more conservative.
However, when Robbins asks the crowd who thinks the midterm elections will be a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s administration, only two hands go up. After he clarifies what repudiation means, I count a few more. But five out of 122 is about 4 percent—significantly less than the 32 percent of Americans who see the midterm ballot as a vote against Obama.
Whatever their leanings, this group of young millennials can agree on one thing—they want change. And perhaps more importantly, they believe that voting can bring about that change.
“It all depends on where we come from and who you ask,” says Mason. “But what it really boils down to is we’re always looking for change, and nine times out of ten we’re going to get it.”
*This student’s name has been changed to protect his identity.