Research into the problem suggests three reasons for
young Americans' disengagement from the political process. “First, non-voters don't see the relevance of the issues being discussed to their lives,” Jefferson-Jenkins says. “The second thing we've found is that people don't have enough information. Even though we're bombarded with sound bites, that's not the kind of information that people feel will help them make an informed choice. Finally, there's a lost sense of community in the United States” (Cooper). Many election experts agree that non-voters fail to see the relevance of campaign rhetoric to their lives. The largest bloc of non-voters are the young people of the 18- to 24-year-old group that is sometimes referred to as Generation Y, the very group that the 26th Amendment sought to draw into the political process. Many young people are no-shows on Election Day, but many analysts agree that their abstention sets up a vicious circle that ensures young people's needs will not be addressed by future candidates.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Voter turnout is at record lows, but one group of non-voters stands out -- young adults from 18 to 24 years of age. Why aren't more young Americans getting out to the polls? What can be done to make political disengagement a thing of the past? According to the Federal Election Commission, just 32 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds voted in the 1996 presidential election, fewer even than the measly 50% of the general population that bothers to vote. Why aren’t these young people interested in politics?
Well, for a number of reasons: cynicism, disenfranchisement, apathy, lack of maturity. These young people haven't evolved in their lives to a point where they can recognize the significance and the responsibility and the duty of participating in democracy through different ways. Obviously the clearest example would be through voting, but also social and political advocacy and general awareness, knowing world affairs, knowing what's going on in your community and state, nationally and globally, and having some awareness of what's going on around you. What fuels a lot of the disenfranchisement or apathy is a bunch of "what do they have in common with me? It's no more one man, one vote, it's these big corporate fat cats and special interests, and they have all the access and they have all the power, and I have none. So what difference can my voice make and how can I compete with all the big corporations?” Part of the problem is that we are stuck in a two-party system that gives young voters little choice. It's moved from "vote for who you like the most" to "vote for who you dislike the least". There was actually a survey that was done by Newsweek that said that 50 percent of young people identify themselves as independent voters, and sixty-four percent of them were interested in having a viable third party. So I think that the inclusion of a viable third party and campaign finance reform both would be of interest to young people. Campaign finance reform would indicate that the system is looking at itself critically and would indicate change in the system. With a third party, it's an introduction of alternative voices.
Because a lot of what we see is that young people, because they don't see their issues being discussed, think that politics have nothing to do with them. A lot of the questions they want to be discussed about are about how politicians will decide who will be the Supreme Court justices, questions about racial profiling, questions about the increase in spending for prisons versus spending on education, questions about campaign finance reform, and questions about the hypocrisy of legislation which takes away funding for higher education if a young person is busted for drugs, whereas candidates have admitted to using drugs, and elected officials have admitted to it, but have suggested that it was a youthful indiscretion. There was a survey that was done by Project Vote Smart that said that the number one concern for the generation was jobs, wages, and the economy. They have a lower median income and they are being told that Social Security will not exist for them, so financially they are concerned. And they are being told that their generation is making millions, so they think everybody else but them is doing well. Yet, I believe the politicians do care but they aren’t doing all that they can. They recognize that young people, in terms of numbers, do make up a great portion of the population. But they aren't investing the level of resources that they invest in, for example, the AARP voter, the retired or older voter, because they don't feel that they can rely on young people to turn out at the polls. Strategically, young people aren't reliable. But if these young people care about these issues, why don’t they do something about it?
“Young people, who are the most likely not to vote, believe that politicians ignore them,” says Ellen Shearer, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and co-author of the 1999 book Nonvoters: America's No-Shows. “A smaller and smaller minority of Americans are deciding the election, and those who aren't buying in may feel literally that what's happening in Washington is just beyond them,” says Shearer, who is also co-director of the Medill News Service. “If all these younger people voted,” Shearer asks, “and the candidates knew they were going to vote, don't you think they might talk to them a little bit more? Maybe then the ways that issues are addressed would change” (Eisner).
Analysts also tend to agree that non-voters fail to receive the kind of information about the candidates' positions on key issues that will draw them to the polls. Among the reasons they cite for Americans' ignorance of the issues are the reliance on television for news and information, declining readership of newspapers, which provide more in-depth coverage of the issues, and the lack of civic education in schools. There has been a measurable decline in civic education and in newspaper reading, as well as in teaching and testing about current events. At the same time, participation in the mediating and training institutions, including student self-government and student newspapers, has eroded.
Cynicism about politics may also contribute to voter fatigue. The failure of successive administrations to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal of the 1970s and President Clinton's denial of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky have all contributed to cynicism about the political process. Similarly, concern about the role of money in politics intensified this year. Polls indicate that the cynicism is particularly felt by younger Americans -- the ones least likely to vote.
“Only about half of people under 50 are paying attention to campaign news, compared to nearly two-thirds of people over 50 years of age,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for The People and the Press. “Compared to 1992, increasing numbers of young people say the reason they don't vote is because of their distaste for politics and their dislike of candidates.”
Some election experts also offer another common explanation for low voter turnout -- what Jefferson-Jackson calls a “lost sense of community.” Indeed, some analysts say the downturn in voter turnout is merely a sign of this deeper, more troubling unraveling of individual Americans' relationships with society as a whole. Today's young adults receive little encouragement at home. A majority of young people are growing up in households where both parents don't vote, a large majority don't discuss politics and a large minority are civically illiterate. Of course, it's always possible that young people will become more politically active as they grow older, enter the work force and have families, thereby entering the generation of Americans whose concerns get attention from candidates for public office.
Other analysts are far less optimistic about future voting trends. “Essentially, all of the decline in voting turnout is generationally driven, and there's no evidence that younger generations have increased their turnout as they have gotten older,” says Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University. “People born in the first third of the 20th century continue to vote at extremely high levels, and they've been voting at that rate all their lives. People born more recently, such as the Baby Boom generation, vote a lot less than that, and they always have.”
The major-party candidates themselves are doing little to woo young Americans to the polls, focusing instead on issues of concern to older voters, such as Social Security, Medicare and public education. If they're not voting much in the first place, then the contending advocacy groups and politicians won't be targeting them so much. It's definitely a vicious circle.
Of course, it's still possible that the closeness of this year's presidential race will spark enough interest in the contest that more young people will show up at the polls on Election Day. “But the underlying generational arithmetic means that we're on a down escalator,” Putnam says. “As older Americans -- who do vote -- die, and young people -- who don't -- come of age, that generational arithmetic has a depressing effect on turnout. If we even have the same degree of turnout in 2012 as we had in 2008 that will merely reflect the fact that we were successfully running up the down escalator.”
Cooper, Mary H. "Low Voter Turnout : Is America's democracy in trouble?" 10.3620 Oct. (2011). CQ Researcher. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://library.cqpress.com.www.libproxy.wvu.edu/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre2000102000&type=hitlist&num=6>.
Eisner, Jane. Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 36-40. Print.