Young Voters Flee the Polls

Staff

Vol. 22, No. 2, 2000 pp. 8-9

If nonvoters constituted a political party in America today, far and away more citizens would belong to it than to all other political parties combined-and that party would be growing rapidly. In the 1998 midterm elections, various surveys show that more than six out often eligible voters or 128 million registered voters failed to vote, a 2.5 million increase over the 1994 midterm election. This continues a thirty-eight-year trend of declining participation rates in both presidential and midterm elections. One recent study found that our electorate has decreased to the point that, among the 131 democracies in the world, the United States ranks 103rd in voter participation.

One of the most alarming realities shaping the steady drift of Americans away from the voting booths is that young people, eighteen to twenty-four years of age, are far and away leading this nonvoting trend. "I'm registered to vote and I guess I usually do, but that is mainly because it helps me gain residential status for school purposes," says Tara Mitchell, a twenty-two-year old African-American student at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "I do see the bigger picture, that each vote adds up, but I don't really feel like it does. Most of my friends do not vote. They just don't see it as a very big concern."

The participation rate for young people in the 1998 midterm election was a startling 15 percent The eighteen to twenty-four year-old cohorts 32.4 percent participation rate in the l996general elections is seventeen percentage points lower than the next lowest age group--twenty-five to forty-four-year-olds--who turnout at an uninspiring rate of 49.2 percent. Comparing the youth vote with the voting age cohort with the highest participation rate--seniors (those sixty-five and older)--is even more revealing. Two of three seniors vote. Two of three youth do not vote.

The trend towards nonvoting from the mid-1960s to 1996 is evident in every section of the country, but the South has led with a decrease of 11 percent The extent of youth nonvoting in the South has, up to this point, not been quantified. "There are no youth voting statistics for the South," explains SRC Fair Representation Director and Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) co-coordinator Winnett Hagens. "A comprehensive, longitudinal evaluation of youth political participation and nonparticipation in a region that is impacted across the board by nonvoting is critical to understanding what needs to be done to reverse these trends. That is just what we plan to do with YEP."

A disproportionate share of the politically alienated in America is drawn from an underclass with a limited stake in the system as presently constituted. Many of the non voters in this underclass are convinced that the system is loaded against them. Minorities especially perceive policies formulated by predominantly-white legislatures and city councils with a suspicious and cynical eye.

This nonparticipation among youth, however, crosses racial and ethnic lines. Participation statistics for the 1996 presidential election show that 32.4 percent of black, 15.1 percent of Hispanic and 33.3 percent of white eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds voted in the 1996 elections. (The lower rate among Hispanic youth may be attributed to the fact that many Hispanic youth are immigrants and, therefore not registered to vote.)

The current epidemic levels of nonparticipation erode the legitimacy, capacity and the stability of our governing institutions. Youth play a crucial role in the durability of a democracy because they constitute the substance of renewal which replenishes the democratic tradition across generations. Yet, says Georgia Representative Bob Holmes (D-Manta), director of the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy at Clark Atlanta University and co-oordinator of YEP, "Young people seem to feel that the system is broke and they don't want to be apart of it."With nonvoting among American youth running at least 70 percent at its lowest troubling questions arise regarding future leadership recruitment prospects for our democracy.

The main benefit of broad public participation in the political process by young and old alike is the creation of public policy that advances the common interests of all rather than the particular interests of a few. The explicit premise of democracy has always been the proposition that the hardest problems confronting a social order demand the collective genius of all for successful resolution. Given the growing complexities of an unstable world order, to engage youth in the political order is not only a means of replenishing our traditions of civic involvement but it is also a way to bring into the public arena new perspectives, energy, enthusiasm, imagination, insight, and ingenuity sorely needed to solve the most difficult problems facing us today.

There is no doubt that a great multitude of causes languish because most voters, especially most young voters, choose not to exercise their franchise. Indeed, one way to appreciate the critical importance of youth disengagement is to ask the question: what issues are sufficiently relevant to youthful voters to draw them into active participation? "I think a lot of the issues that are important to older people are also important to younger people, but in a different way--welfare, healthcare, public education, censorship, how the government is creeping into our lives," says Matielyn Williams, a nineteen-


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year old African-American student at the State University of West Georgia in Carroliton who is already registered and planning to vote in her first election this fall. "We are entering the working classes and are beginning to be impacted by these things and need to have a voice."

In an effort to combat this growing alienation of American youth from the political process, the Southern Regional Council, in partnership with the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy at Clark Atlanta University, is undertaking the Youth Empowerment Project, a sixyear project which will both document this trend in the South and develop pilot youth leadership development programs to nurture and grow youth political engagement. "I think there is a growing alarm regarding the precipitous decline in youth voting and political participation, shared by the Southern Center for Public Policy and the SRC," explains Hagens. "We want to see youth coming back to the voting place."

For more information about the YEP project, contact Winnett Hagens at (404) 522-8764 x39, or by email at: whagens@southerncouncil.org.