College students show significantly higher turnout than American youth who don’t pursue higher education, but we’re still part of the disappointing youth vote. According to CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), turnout for voters between the ages of 18 and 24 in the 2008 presidential election was under 50 percent. That’s about 15 percentage points lower than the rest of the voting population. Polls currently predict that this year’s election will see lower youth turnout than 2008.
Many of my peers, at college and from home, reflect this voting ambivalence. The reasons they give for sacrificing their greatest civic privilege vary widely; apathy, disillusionment and distrust of the system are some of the more popular excuses. Whatever the motive, the result is the same. Representation requires involvement in choosing and making one’s positions known to a representative. Right now the youth vote is a relatively voiceless demographic.
What is it about being young that discourages participation in the political system? Are we naive idealists who wash our hands of government in broken-hearted despair when a political figure doesn’t deliver on every election promise? Are we hopeless pessimists, convinced that our vote doesn’t count and that our voice will never be heard? There is no reason for these attitudes to be more prevalent among younger citizens than our older counterparts; if anything, disillusionment and pessimism logically belong to those who have 40 or so years of experience with the political system.
Perhaps one of the more widespread causes for abstention is the seeming irrelevance of one’s vote to one’s immediate life. The somewhat dubitable, indirect consequences of election politics simply don’t rank alongside all the other concerns of a 20-something-year-old’s life. Getting good grades in an EEB class feels like more of an accomplishment than electing someone who vaguely promises to address climate change. Of course, the candidate’s vagueness is probably related to the fact that those who have the most to lose on climate conservation issues are younger constituents, an inactive, largely powerless demographic.
Older generations have a conception of immediate practicality and relevance in choosing a political representative. The vote of the elderly has a highly significant place in election politics; why else do Social Security and Medicare place so high on the debate agenda? These are issues that both parties address earnestly, trying to outdo one another in creating economic and social agendas that seniors will support. Clearly, our grandparents are voting. In contrast, issues like the rising cost of higher education, global warming and the eventual payment of baby boomer generation benefits have turned into little more than empty asides thrown out in convention speeches. These are issues that do or will have resounding consequences for our generation, but are we voting on them? The older demographic is a unified front, casting its ballots in earnest defense of its own economic, medical, and social interests. Politicians listen to them. Unsurprisingly, underrepresented youth do not receive equivalent attention.
We have much to learn from our parents’ parents. My grandfather is an ardent political junkie who, ever since I first began to express an interest in the electoral process, regularly forwards alarmist emails about prominent Democrats to my inbox. This is not the most convincing diplomacy on his part since the messages are often offensive and almost always incredible.
On the other hand, I have unmixed respect for my grandfather’s passion and consistency. I hope to emulate his persistence in taking action over political issues that affect his life. Actually, many of these issues don’t affect him personally, but they offend his principles, and he’ll be damned if he’ll let them pass unchallenged. He is the kind of citizen who makes representative democracy work.
Seniors know what they want and they know how to use the system to get it. Our generation does not. The lack of coherence and numbers in the youth vote comes from a complicated patchwork of reasons: too much idealism, too little optimism, plain lack of interest in the political process, and the list goes on. What is so frustrating about these excuses is their transience. Statistics show that, whichever conviction we’re currently laboring under, we will outgrow it by the time we’re old enough to tell our grandchildren how to vote.
The time to grow up is now. There are policies and ideals at stake in this election that will influence our college education, our future careers, and — pardon the melodrama — the health of our planet. Who will bear the expense of the stimulus plan? Who will foot the bill on social benefits for the elderly, and who will ensure that these benefits are still in place 40 years from now? We are being answered for. It is time to find our voice and answer for ourselves.
You can easily access voter registration forms and absentee ballots online. If you get stuck at any point in the process, call up Grandpa and ask for assistance; he’s a pro at this election thing. However, if your political opinions tend to conflict with his, better keep your vote to yourself.
Tehila Wenger is a sophomore from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.