Originally published in the JHU Politik on 11/5/12
In 1971, Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This guaranteed that all American citizens ages 18 and older could vote in U.S. federal elections. Today there are 46 million people who fall into the so-called “youth voting bloc”—consisting of those between the ages of 18 and 29—and make up 21% of the eligible U.S. voting population. Take those numbers and compare them to the mere 39 million seniors who are eligible to vote.
In spite of our numerical advantage, youth are often disparaged for being apathetic and ill informed by politicians who do not believe in young peoples’ willingness to vote. However, the fact is that we represent a major subset of the electorate and should represent ourselves as such.
There is hope. Youth voting turnout has gone up in the past several election cycles. According to the Center For Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth turnout in 2008 rose to 52%, an increase of 4 percentage points from the 2004 presidential election. We also know, thanks to research conducted by Richard Niemi and Michael J. Hanmer, that voting turnout among college students is traditionally higher than that of non-college educated youth. Despite these positive trends, youth turnout, college educated or not, still lags behind all other age demographics.
The question remains: Why? Why do so many young people choose not to not engage in our democratic process?
Some people argue that youth are engaging, albeit in different ways. For example, our generation volunteers in record numbers. According to a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, young people volunteer at nearly twice the rate of adults, 55% to 29%. Additionally, this study found that altruism is the driving motivator of youth volunteerism. Young people strongly agreed with statements such as, “I would like to help make the world a better place,” and “It’s important to do things for others.” We do want to improve our communities, but it seems that some want to bypass “politics” along the way.
For many young people who are volunteering but not voting, politics has come to be seen as something distasteful, smarmy, petty, and synthetic. Even readers of the JHU Politik, students that have an interest in politics, may still sympathize with the way many of our peers have come to view politics. Our political process is often characterized by financial corruption, thirst for power, and dishonesty.
Even if this position is understandable, it is not an excuse to disengage. For the sake of social change and for the sake of the survival of our democratic system, citizens have to take ownership of their responsibility to vote. The onus is partially on the politically active youth to do a better job of explaining to them why they should vote. However, ultimately as citizens it is our responsibility to participate.
As President Garfield said in 1877, “Now more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature.”
The youth of this country need to demonstrate that if they want to change the world through altruistic aspirations, which we know they do, then it is impossible to do so without also engaging in the political process. Community service and volunteering is important, but, as the old truism goes, you cannot end world hunger by serving soup in a soup kitchen. We’ll never get stronger environmental conservation laws by cleaning up a park one day on the weekend. We’ll never shed the need for inner-city tutors unless we legislate serious educational reform. Those things have intrinsic value, but to make lasting changes we need to work within our existing, although imperfect, political system.
It is not only our responsibility to vote, but also to help make that message clear to all U.S. citizens. So tomorrow, please vote and help everyone you know to vote as well.