Young people finally care to vote

Last year, I considered writing a story about why we, college students, and our generation—the 18-24 young people demographic—were so involved in community service but were also so politically apathetic. The story was in the numbers. Between 2002 and 2005, college student volunteering increased by 20 percent, more than doubling the growth in the adult volunteering rate (according to the Corporation for National and Community Service), leading some to herald the rise of a new civic generation.

Around roughly the same time period, between 2000 and 2004, voting by 18- to 24 year-olds in congressional and presidential elections increased by a mere 4.1 percent (according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau)—although I was pretty shocked there was any increase at all. Before then, youth voting had decreased steadily in every election cycle.

You hear it everywhere, especially from all those older adults and political pundits: “Young people never vote. Young people are apathetic or lazy. Young people don’t care.” But as can be seen from the community service data, young people do care, and their acts of service render them far from apathetic or lazy: young people tutor inner-city children, work in soup kitchens, volunteer at homeless shelters, clean up the environment and more—they even do all these things at a higher percentage than adults do.

Apparently, they just don’t vote. Blame it on disillusionment with the political process, or a feeling that individual votes don’t matter, or the perceived distance between the bigwigs on Capitol Hill and the average Joe lugging around textbooks on campus. Blame it on apathy, even, but the hard facts of the matter were that young people historically do not vote. Not enough to matter, anyway, which is probably why no presidential candidate ever successfully counted on the youth vote to secure a nomination or win a presidency (sure, there was Michael Dukakis and Howard Dean, but who remembers them now? Ask a college student, and you’ll get a blank stare).

This was probably why young people weren’t encouraged to vote either—after all, why vote for someone who didn’t listen to them or care about their concerns? It was a vicious cycle: young people didn’t vote, candidates didn’t talk to them, young people felt like they had no reason to vote, young people didn’t vote, candidates continued ignoring them, etc.

This is why this year’s presidential contest is so momentous. For the first time since the voting age was lowered to 18, young people matter, and their votes matter in a major election. As Time magazine reports, the Iowa victory that fueled Barack Obama’s presidential momentum came almost entirely from voters under the age of 25; young voters’ participation in the first caucuses was up 135 percent; and if that isn’t telling enough, young voters’ interest in this election has been found to exceed even their interest in celebrity news or sports (seven out of 10 are following the race).

This past Super Tuesday, youth turnout at the polls skyrocketed (according to www.civicyouth.org)—in Georgia, it tripled. Is it any wonder that Time has dubbed 2008 the “year of the youth vote”?

Even I can feel the effects, and I’ve never been really interested in politics before. For the first time in my life, I’ve been paying close attention to the presidential primaries and following all the news reports. For the first time since I can remember, I hear people my age everywhere talking about the election (and that’s no mean feat, especially here at Tech where I’m lucky if I can persuade my guy friends and fiance to stop talking about Starcraft or Lords of the Realm II and hydraulics engineering). For the first time ever, it seems that people, especially young people, are excited about politics and are actually talking about it with passion and hope.

I’ve always felt that people our age do care about what happens in the world—I’ve watched Tech students taking action in service organizations for years, raising money for causes like cancer research and raising awareness for issues like sexual exploitation of children. But it’s thrilling to see that translate to political action too, and on such a large scale all over the country. Of course, it’s also nice to stump the establishment and the older adult generation that have always believed young people didn’t care enough to vote. But the establishment and the age-old cynics are right in some ways too. They raise questions and doubts that should be addressed seriously by our generation, by us. Will we continue to vote, to make ourselves heard, to matter to the candidates, to demand a political voice? Was this election year just a fluke, or is real change in the cards for all the years hereafter? Will we keep caring?

Sure, Obama is an exciting candidate who has courted the youth vote more successfully than any candidate before him. But what about the next election year, or the next, or the next after that, when there may not be a candidate like Obama? Will we still vote?

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some variant of “young people are the future.” The youth turnout this primary season has given me a new reason to believe this. But if we really want to stay relevant and matter politically, if we want to take some responsibility for that future now, we have to keep going, and we have to keep rocking that vote.