Since 1972, it has been accurate to say that older voters vote and younger voters don’t. Many youths don’t even bother to register, thereby wasting one of the greatest privileges of democracy. But that description of politically apathetic youth is subject to change, which it did most recently in the 2008 presidential election. Some 54.5 percent of U.S. voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast their ballot. The rate of participation nearly matched the 1972 record (at 55.5 percent) for young voter turnout. The youth vote is also credited for swinging Indiana and North Carolina to Barack Obama.
The youth vote matters not least because of its size; at 18 percent of the electorate, it is even larger than the 65 and older group, which makes up 16 percent. But in many elections the turnout of seniors far exceeds that of young people. It is not too simplistic to say that whoever can draw the youth vote has a shot at winning the day.
Analysts have credited the economy—make that economic hardship or anxiety--as the major reason for the upswing in the youth vote in 2008. Young people have experienced the economic downturn, the rising costs of college, loans upon graduation, and tough job markets. If that assessment is accurate, then the recession may help turn out young voters in the mid-term Congressional elections.
So far there has been no real groundswell of visible interest in political involvement. Young people seemed silent during the health care slugout in Congress. Perhaps that is because many are students and fewer of them hold full-time jobs where health insurance is an issue. Youths tend to be at their healthiest stage of life, too. Many have even opted out of employer-sponsored health insurance plans, preferring to take a chance on good health rather than pay the premium.
But two separate events demonstrate an activist spark among the young, though neither has yet to ignite anything like a movement or national campaign.
In late April, when thousands of high school students across New Jersey staged a walk-out to publicly protest state cuts in education, they called their demonstration “an act of civil disobedience.” This group of teenagers cannot remember the sixties or any other organized American protest movement, whether for civil rights, against the Vietnam War or for a nuclear freeze. But they knew the vocabulary. And their one-day action did rouse publicity around an important issue that directly affects them now and will in the future: education. It illustrated that students—teenagers--can exert political force.
The walk-out was suggested by Michelle Lauto, a recent high school graduate and current college student, whose own mother is a teacher. Lauto sounded off her dissatisfaction with the state’s budget cuts on her Facebook page and tried to rally others to participate in a one-day walk-out from high school classrooms all over New Jersey. The proposed cuts include teacher layoffs, rationing of school supplies, cuts in athletic programs and more. Lauto’s plan for a walk-out drew 18,000 responses. From that online social network, the idea grew, disseminated in text messages and on Twitter. Ultimately, thousands of students left their classrooms, a political act that included dozens of high schools around the state. Some faced detention for leaving school, but all likely gained an experience of organized political action and the attention it can draw from the adult world.
The second example concerns five young immigrants (in their 20s) who staged a “sit in” in Senator John McCain’s office in Tucson, Arizona in mid-May to urge him to sponsor the Dream Act—which offers a pathway to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who graduate from high school or complete two years of military service. They dressed in caps and gowns and occupied the lobby of McCain’s office peacefully, but refused to leave. The Senator had repeatedly sponsored the Dream Act in earlier years, but has not done so this year because he faces stiff political opposition and his own party is fiercely anti-immigrant. Three of the students are in the country illegally and may face deportation for their action; four were arrested for trespassing. They have much to lose by participating in a public political act of this sort, they realize. But what they and other immigrant children stand to gain apparently outweighs the risk as they see it.
Such a willingness to act, to risk, to lead on behalf of a greater common good is what political movements are made of. And short of that—at least for those who can legally register and vote—there is the humble casting of a ballot, whenever an election is held. This is what I hope today’s young people understand and exercise.
Karen Sue Smith