Untapped Potential: Reaching Young Voters in America

December 31, 2011
By Sissy Sullivan SILVER, Eureka, Missouri
Sissy Sullivan SILVER, Eureka, Missouri
7 articles 0 photos 1 comment

We – Generation Y – clearly have the ability. Motivation, however, is a whole different ball game. Despite historical and contemporary evidence testifying to our potential as the movers and shakers of politics, young adults in America don’t like to vote. In 1971, Congress ratified the Twenty-sixth Amendment, opening up the vote to eighteen- to twenty-year-olds. Most expected young Americans to flock to the polls. Instead, voter turnout for young adults has steadily dwindled, hitting an all-time low in 2000 when just 14.3% of 18- to 29-year-olds bothered to vote (Kirby). Young adults have swiftly become notorious for their civic apathy, which manifests itself year after year in the disappointing percentage of young people at the polls. As political scientists Benjamin Highton and Raymond Wolfinger wrote in their 1999 study, one of the most common demographic features of nonvoters is simply “youth” (Gelman).

Multiple solutions to Generation Y political indifference have been put forward, including mandatory voting or a lower voting age. The most viable option, however, is much simpler: we need to educate America’s children before shoving them into the wide world of blue and red, left and right. Rather than expecting young adults to abruptly understand everything about politics when they turn eighteen, middle and high schools need to employ strong civics programs that teach adolescents how to judiciously choose candidates, discern between florid rhetoric and cold fact, and examine the intricacies of their constitutional rights.

Earlier this year, young adults in countries such as Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, and Libya were largely credited with “toppl[ing] two dictatorships and shak[ing] up regimes across the Middle East” (Calabresi). Similarly, the “decisive turnout of young voters” in Seoul’s recent mayoral election – a precursor to the 2012 presidential election – precipitated the unexpected defeat of the favored incumbent candidate (Glionna). Even President Obama recognizes the untapped potential of America’s youth. His 2008 presidential campaign successfully targeted young adults, and analysts largely attribute his election to “the enthusiasm of young supporters” (Lauter).

These instances plainly demonstrate that incapability does not preclude Generation Y from voting or becoming politically active. When motivated enough, young people have been able to singlehandedly accomplish great political feats. More accurately, three main factors – institutional barriers, lack of education, and an aversion to politics – deter young Americans from taking a more dynamic role in politics.

First and foremost, many young adults simply don’t understand the voting process. They don’t know how to vote, or where to go, or what to do. Instead of pursuing the solution to these dilemmas, many are content to remain at home playing videogames and Facebooking their buddies. As Nathan Goodrich, 18, put it, “People my age probably aren’t registered to vote because no one tells you what to do. I have no idea what the process is” (Turner).

Second, many people – young adults in particular – are “turned off” by politics. One young adult, Stephen Smith, 22, stated in an interview with The New York Times that he is tired of “watching candidates cutting each other down. You don’t know who to believe anymore.” Charlie Randle, 29, concurred: “I’m not going to vote because there’s too much flimflam going on. This isn’t politics; this is a dogfight” (Toner). Many young adults voice similar views, expressing disgust at the smear campaigns and discrediting tactics that characterize the weeks and months leading up to elections, where the media scrutinizes politicians’ private lives as heavily as their public policy. Many view phrases like “mudslinging” and “filibustering” as irrevocably annexed to the sullied art of politics. In fact, below-the-belt political tactics have spawned their own specialized lexis, including words such as “gerrymandering” and “kompromat.”

Politics was once a community enterprise that brought people together, “a social activity as well as a political activity . . . [that] was deeply embedded in everyday life” (Toner). These days, politics are considered “distant” and “disconnected,” a sort of necessary evil that even politicians refer to as “a dirty game” (Saulny). No wonder young people are reluctant to associate themselves with such a negative, ill-favored enterprise!

Finally, young people often don’t get involved politics because politicians don’t pay attention to them. In 2003, Brian Tearny, campaign manager for Sam Katz, summed up the political mindset toward young adults when he said, “They [those below 30] are not going to vote. You don’t want to spend a whole lot of time talking about things that matter to people who don’t vote.” In her book Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy, Jane Eisner describes how young adults and the politicians who allegedly represent them are caught in a vicious cycle: “Young people don’t vote, so candidates don’t talk about their issues, so they [young adults] become further disillusioned with the process and stay away [from the polls] in greater numbers” (46).

Over the years, several solutions have been proposed to solve young voter apathy. First and foremost among them is mandatory voting. If the government were to implement mandatory voting, all voting-age citizens would be required to vote, “permissible reasons for not voting” limited to illness and foreign travel (Galston). Anyone who didn’t vote would be fined a small amount, about the value of a traffic ticket, the penalty increasing with repeated infractions.

“Mandatory voting would . . . even out disparities stemming from income, education and age, enhancing our system’s inclusiveness,” writes William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Campaigns could devote far less money to costly, labor-intensive get-out-the-vote efforts. . . . Rather than focusing on symbolic gestures whose major purpose is to agitate partisans, Congress might actually roll up its sleeves and tackle the serious, complex issues it ignores.”

However, voting should be seen as a gift to treasure, not a point of resentment. Mark S. Weiner, a professor at the Rutgers-Newark School of Law, argues that “a direct mandate to vote lies beyond the enumerated powers of Congress.” Moreover, many voters would resent such an infringement on their freedom of speech since “nonparticipation is a valid mode of political dissent” (Weiner). Mandating voting would only incite young voters – notorious for their volatility – to intentionally mark their ballots at random in spite of system.

The second option is to lower the voting age, thereby introducing adolescents to the world of politics and cementing the idea of political activism in their minds at an earlier age. However, most believe that a 15- or 16-year-old simply doesn’t have the maturity to weigh the complicated, multifaceted pros and cons of politics and make an educated decision. Additionally, multiple studies have found that parents hold an inordinate amount of sway in the political leanings of their children, even after they have left the home (Niemi). This power would only be amplified in younger children. In lowering the voting age, we would more likely than not be handing out free votes to overzealous parents.

Only one solution addresses the major problems at the root of voter apathy in young Americans: implementing comprehensive civics courses in middle and high schools. Instead of making voting itself mandatory, high schools should make intensive civics courses requirements for graduation. “Education level has long been understood to be a strong predictive factor of one’s likelihood of voting,” write Emily Kirby and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg in their analysis “The Youth Vote in 2008.” Another author echoed this appeal for better civic education when he called for “vigorous civics’ program in high schools, assuring that youth possess the knowledge to cast their votes responsibly” (Lankford 9). This form of instruction would eliminate the gaping black hole in basic voter education as well as provide a safe environment where adolescents could learn particulars as simple as how to register and what to expect at the polls. This solution ultimately combines the previous two proposals, mandating political education in young Americans before they are of age to vote.

When children are educated and involved in politics early on, they are considerably more likely to remain politically active in their adult lives. One study found that the children’s program Voting USA successfully “promote[d] civic responsibility” by having elementary and middle-school aged children practice voting. Additional surveys suggest that “children, by becoming involved in the political process, have even helped raise adult participation” (Lankford 9). Multiple studies over the years have successfully demonstrated that “young people with more education are more likely to vote” (Kirby).

Putting young adults together in a classroom setting specifically addressing politics might also resurrect the sense of community American citizens shared two or three decades ago. Rather than shunting political activity to a handful of radical nut jobs, pan-national civics classes would bring young people together in communal political learning. In addition, having all young adults taking these classes concurrently might normalize political activism and lessen the stigma attached to politics.

Finally, if politicians knew that the next crop of Americans were being raised and educated as politically astute citizens, they might be more willing to address topics and issues germane to Generation Y.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should vote. As touched on earlier, nonvoting is as much an expression of freedom of speech as voting. However, young Americans should be educated about their civic rights and the political events shaping their lives and country. “The quality of votes is frankly far more important than the quantity of votes,” says Lankford. “We as a nation need to elect the best candidate, and to do that, we must take the time to be educated on the policies of candidates and not just the appearance of a candidate” (15).

Some argue that our already much-criticized public education system can’t handle the financial burden of implementing additional classes or graduation requirements. Yet the upside of young adult political education is surely worth the cost. If Generation Y (as well as the next generation, however we choose to letter them) learns from childhood to utilize jurisprudence and plumb the depths of solipsistic politician-speak, young adults might reach a point where they could elect capable, intelligent politicians into office as opposed to blindly voting in dashing interlocutors without any real understanding of fiscal or foreign policy.

In the end, voting is a privilege. Young voters in America represent an entire generation of untapped political potential. Thomas Jefferson once praised American suffrage as “the rational and peaceable instrument of reform” (Foley 842). We – Generation Y – need to ensure that it remains this way. Multiple instances have shown that young adults have the potential necessary to shape their nation the way they want. We just need a little prodding to get on the right path. Daniel Webster, a prominent nineteenth century statesman and senator, once wrote these lines to explicate the necessity of voting and political activism:

Impress upon children the truth that the exercise of the elective franchise is a social duty of as solemn a nature as man can be called to perform; that a man may not innocently trifle with his vote; that every elector is a trustee as well for others as himself and that every measure he supports has an important bearing on the interests of others as well as on his own (Webster 108).

Hopefully these words still ring true today.

Generation Y unquestionably has what it takes to mold America to our wants and needs, yet we’re crippled by political apathy. Of all the proposed solutions, simply educating our youth in serious high school civics courses would resolve many of the problems at the root of civic indifference in America’s young people. But you’ve read through the alternative solutions. You’ve seen the evidence. So you tell us: What’s your vote?

Works Cited
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