What’s the power of the youth vote?

So you may have heard there’s a pretty important election happening in the U.S. on Tuesday. No, we’re not voting for president this year, but we will be deciding the shape of Congress, electing governors in 39 states, and voting on ballot initiatives all over the country, some of which are seriously scary.

Through my work with Choice USA I get the privilege of working with youth organizers who have been doing voter registration, voter education, and now get out the vote work. I’ve blogged about some of that work over at my organization’s site. I’ve been consistently inspired by the other young people I get to organize with. But while collaborating with under 30 organizers doing incredible work to engage their peers in the political process there’s something I heard over and over again: young people aren’t engaged in politics, our generation doesn’t care about voting, we’re uninformed and don’t take this valuable and hard won right seriously.

This narrative has become so pervasive that it’s been successfully sold to the very people who prove it wrong. The current generation of young people are incredibly politically engaged, and that’s not just from anecdotal evidence. Youth voter turnout has been steadily and impressively increasing since 2000. Choice USA Executive Director Kierra Johnson and League of Young Voters Executive Director Biko Baker wrote in The Nation:

Young people are the largest growing voting block. We came out in record numbers for the 2008 election, as YouTube took its first bows as a political soapbox to be reckoned with. An estimated 22 million young people under the age of 30 voted in 2008 – two million more than in 2004. The youth voter turnout rose to an extraordinary 51 percent. At the same time, older adults voted at lower rates than in 2004 and only slightly above their 2000 level. Young people’s enthusiasm for civic engagement did not stop after 2008, but real engagement with young people did.

Additionally, when young people are given the opportunity to get engaged by registering to vote we take it seriously: in 2004 81.6% of registered 18-29 year olds voted. In fact, the number of us that vote is very close to the number of seniors that vote. That’s serious voting power, the kind that can have a real influence on the outcome of elections, not some fringe group to be ignored by the political machine.

The political machine still hasn’t figured out how to speak to young people, though. Young voters tend to care a lot more about issues than political parties, a perspective that I think is right on. But this means politicians have to actually engage us in intelligent dialogue.

My fear is that young people are being told we don’t vote and don’t care in an attempt to keep us from voting and caring. It breaks my heart that this narrative has been pushed on the very people who are giving so much of their time and energy to make sure their peers are politically engaged. Turnout for midterm elections is historically lower than that for presidential elections, and I’m sure the pundits are all ready to say that lower youth turnout in 2010 is a sign that 2008 was an Obama-based anomaly.

This is a young feminist blog. And a lot of you reading right now have the right to vote in the U.S. If you can, please vote. When you have the right it’s the smallest thing you can do to be engaged in the political process, but together we can make a big difference. I know a lot of us are disillusioned with our political leaders – I know I want better. But organizers need people in office who are at least responsive to our issues so we can push them to make change.

So let’s vote tomorrow. Let’s show the pundits and the parties that we’re voters who are here to stay, that we care about the process and want to be engaged, and that they have to listen to us.

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 1, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I would say that the traditional media outlets aren’t quite sure what to make of the youth vote. It’s not predictable in ways that other demographics are, meaning they can’t easily run electronic graphics and speculate the way they can with other groups.

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