The late senator Jennings Randolph, the Democrat from West Virginia who championed the right of 18-year-olds to vote for more than 30 years in the House and the Senate, was once asked whether he was worried that young people would shake up the status quo. "Differences do not alarm me," he said. "It is only when people are indifferent that I have great concern."
Randolph worked tirelessly to engage young people in the political process and finally, in 1971, secured passage of the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. He died a few years ago, living long enough to witness the steady decline in the younger generation's interest in electoral politics, partly the result of the very indifference that was his chief concern. But I'd like to think he'd be heartened by what's happening this year.
The youth vote is finding its voice again. The movement to engage young people politically has learned from a decade of trial-and-error efforts. It has capitalized on an unusually close and important presidential race to become a force of unprecedented size and sophistication, led by a network of experienced, committed advocates who have been able to attract big money and media attention to their cause. It still faces the formidable tasks of convincing a population estranged from politics that voting is worthwhile, and persuading politicians to pay attention to an unpredictable segment of the electorate and its largely ignored issues.
The relationship of American youth to the ballot box has been a tenuous one ever since the 26th Amendment took effect in the 1972 presidential election. That year, 49.6 percent of the nation's eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted; the percentage dropped to a third in the razor-thin race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. As for 18-year-olds that year, only 26.7 percent -- barely more than one in four -- said they voted, according to the best estimates.
And though it's true that voting rates in all age groups have declined, youth voting has taken a much steeper path downward. This despite the fact that young people today are the most educated generation America has ever had, and education once was a trusted predictor of who was likely to turn out on Election Day. After other groups of excluded Americans first won the right to vote -- blacks, women, those who didn't own land -- their turnout rates increased over time; young people are the only ones to buck that historical trend.
In the course of researching a book on the youth vote and why the promise of the 26th Amendment has not been fulfilled, I concluded that the younger generation is no more lazy, spoiled or apathetic than the population at large. In fact, this generation volunteers in record numbers and many of its members express a concern about the world around them that equals or exceeds their elders'. As Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute says: "My generation was enraged. This generation is engaged."
Engaged -- but not in the political arena, which for many younger people is a dirty, distant spectator sport whose players don't seem interested in their ideas or their issues. (How many times did George Bush or John Kerry mention young people in accepting their parties' nomination for president? Bush twice briefly, Kerry not at all.) A 30-year, well-documented decline in civic education in and outside the classroom has left many in this generation ill-informed of the role and accomplishments of government, and ill-versed in the skills of citizenship. So they direct their considerable civic energies into community service, believing that personal intervention will solve community problems more effectively than casting a lone vote on Election Day. For many of them, service has become the new politics.
But working in a soup kitchen doesn't address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition, which still plague too many people in the richest nation on earth. Tutoring a child doesn't resolve the myriad problems created by inequitable school funding. Even those in the service community are awakening to these sobering realities. "Service as politics is incredibly dangerous," warns Steven A. Culbertson, president and CEO of Youth Service America. "I tell the young people I work with that if you volunteer but don't vote, 20 years from now your kids are going to be cleaning the same dirty rivers and tutoring in the same lousy schools."
This point is not lost on those who are mobilizing voters during this election cycle. There seems to be a realization that it's not enough to don the red-white-and-blue and wag a finger about duty and patriotism and all the people who died securing a right largely taken for granted today. The efficacy of voting needs to be made clear -- the fact that choosing one's leaders and holding them accountable is the cornerstone of a democratic republic, and not just in a theoretical sense. Policy is directly affected by those who exercise political power, and the young people paying attention know it. "The national debt is our burden. Social Security is our burden. The drug benefit doesn't help us," says 24-year-old Erin Ross, one of the founders of United Leaders, which bills itself as "the farm team for idealism in politics."
Getting the attention of politicians and policymakers is but one aim of this year's mobilization efforts, which are fueled by unprecedented funding from individuals, foundations and commercial sponsors. By one estimate, nearly $40 million will be spent by Election Day to get young people registered and to the polls.
Some of the efforts are unabashedly edgy and in-your-face. Go to hip-hop entrepreneur Sean "P. Diddy" Combs's Web site for his newly established Citizen Change, and see him modeling his "Vote or Die!" T-shirt, on sale for a mere 30 bucks. "It's not a phrase that many people are comfortable with," acknowledges Alexis McGill, who left the world of academe to become Citizen Change's executive director. "But we are the most marketed-to generation in every sense of the word. We have to reach people where they are. We're trying to drive direct action on the ground. What if we could turn the hip-hop generation into the next NRA?"
That desire to drive action on the ground is another hallmark of this year's efforts. Even the venerable Rock the Vote, started by the music industry in 1990, is hosting "street teams" at rock concerts and sporting events to bring its campaign from the airwaves to people it can touch and engage. This didn't happen by chance. There's now a solid body of social science research proving that peer canvassing is the most effective way to increase turnout among young people.
Having the hard numbers, in turn, has helped these groups secure funding from philanthropists and foundations, which are not looking to throw money at unproven techniques. The Pew Charitable Trusts is putting $8.9 million behind the New Voters Project, which is using grass-roots organizing methods in an attempt to register 265,000 new voters aged 18 to 24 in six key states. By the end of September, the Project was close to its goal, having registered 247,000 young people. It has registered 100,000 in Wisconsin alone, and there are only about a half million kids that age in the entire state.
Those names, addresses and cell phone numbers are then thrown into a huge database, which will form the basis of a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote effort in November. That's another sign of sophistication -- use of the Internet and computer technology to organize information and hone recruitment, and open the field to newcomers with the skills to take advantage of a generation that connects largely in cyberspace. "Anyone with a computer and five friends can figure out how to mobilize," notes Ivan Frishberg, the New Voters Project's director.
Another feature: Collaboration. Citizen Change is working with MTV's Choose or Lose, which is a partner of the New Voters Project, which is also working with a charming effort called Voter Virgin, and the list goes on and on. There's a surprising lack of institutional ego in this work, and a sense of camaraderie that one wishes characterized more of the attempts to improve civic life in this nation.
Whether any of this makes a real difference won't be known for sure until the ballots are counted, and even then, it will require close analysis to see what worked, and where. Turnout among young people will undoubtedly rise this year; after all, it has nowhere to go but up. The challenge will be to sustain numbers and interests during years when the prize is not as lustrous and the choices not as clear. Voting is a habit of citizenship, a civic behavior that must be learned and reinforced, a social act done in the context of community. Some years we go to the polls with great resolve and excitement; other years, only vaguely comfortable that we're picking the best of an uninspiring lot.
Those are the ups and downs of a democratic republic, a messy and not always satisfying system that remains the best way of empowering ordinary citizens to influence their government and their destiny. In that spirit, I'd like to think that Jennings Randolph would have been pleased to hear this plaintive question from a young man participating in a recent conference on youth civic engagement: "Are we really living free if we're not voting?"
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