I am voting and have been voting for years, and what do I have to show for it? Rarely am I addressed publicly, hardly am I contacted by polling institutions and never am I included in a stump speech. I am not alone. Forty-four percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in college or with a college degrees voted in the 2000 election, and even more promise to turn out this election.
But much of the media claims otherwise. “Kids aren’t educated; they’re not informed, and they don’t care … that is why we can’t get kids in a voting booth.” This statement, smugly asserted by “Real Time’s” Bill Maher, embodies the media’s tendency to slander youth. The concept of youth voter apathy is greatly exaggerated, at least among college students. Young people are not missing from voting booths, but they are missing from every other place within the political arena.
Open any newspaper, turn on any political talk show or any talk-radio program – rarely will you find young people engaged in political discussions. Stop asking why young people do not vote – ask why they are not engaged. Perhaps it is because the youth opinions are not sufficiently factored into political platforms.
Many nonpartisan organizations will point to their extensive “get out the vote” programs. Their efforts have been rewarded with thousands of newly registered, young voters. But is voting all young people are good for?
The answer is a resoundingly “No.” Young people’s roles as soldier, worker, parent, academic, philanthropist and entrepreneur render them capable of much more. While the rest of the country spends the other 1,460 days of the election cycle debating policy and legislation, young people’s electoral responsibility is expected to end when they exit the voting booth. Effectively, young people are being used for their votes. Once elected, candidates turn their backs on youth. Alienated and neglected, youth remain on the political arena’s outskirts.
This is not to devalue voter registration. Low turnout is a problem. But standing alone, registration will not produce an informed, responsible, invested electorate. Pairing mobilization with engagement is essential.
October is the ideal time for candidates in races from president on down to prove their commitment to youth. Election 2004 can be dynamic and exciting – a model for all elections to come.
Amanda Houle works for Youth04, a nonpartisan organization. Please send comments to [email protected]