Why Don't Youth Vote? Young People RespondStaff
Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 pp. 18-19
The following comments were excerpted from the Center for Voting and Democracy's Spring 2000 youth essay contest which asked college and high school students to respond to the question, Why Don't Youth Vote? The writers quoted, mostly college students, suggested changes to the electoral system that might increase political participation among young people and explained their reasons for participating in or abstaining from our political and electoral systems.
"Jim C. Fung, born 1979, college student, Berkeley, California
Youth are disillusioned with politics for many of the same reasons that our parents are. If lobbyists and campaign contributors did not have more access to public officials than do regular citizens, if economic democracy in the workplace existed alongside what some would call the "illusion" of political democracy, if elected officials acted more on "bread and butter" economic issues, such as the increasing concentration of wealth and the lack of health insurance for many Americans, than on expanding the prison population and on the military-then most people of all ages would consider their votes much more meaningful.
Given the reality that youth tend to get most excited about issues rather than politicians, alternative electoral systems such as proportional representation, IRV, cumulative voting, and easier third-party ballot access, would only succeed in stimulating us if the third parties involved were ideologically oriented or issues-based parties rather than crass vote-maximizers. The issues of these parties would also need to be relevant to daily life-rather than visions of pie-in-the-sky utopianism. Many of the third parties in America today already fit this bill, addressing issues like the environment, workers' rights, and healthcare. In addition, judging from the example of European democracies using PR, the presence of such a system tends to encourage ideological or issues-based parties. Thus, an alternative electoral system should be seriously considered.
Amanda Ponzar, born 1978, college student, Lansdowne, Pennsylvania
When it comes down to it, I care. I watch all the presidential and vice-presidential debates, listen to the State of the Union, read the paper, and frequently publish letters to the editor about my concerns. Just like me, many young people around this country care desperately about their lives, goals, and future. We need someone to listen, support our issues, and prove to us that America wants to hear from young people.
Stephanie Simmons, born 1980, college student, Wellesley, Massachusetts
I'm a politically active twenty-year-old college student, and I've never voted in an election--state, local, or national. It seems strange now that I think about it. I've been interested in politics for as long as I can remember, trying to talk my parents into voting for Dukakis in 1988 and holding a sign for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. I eagerly looked forward to the time when I would be able to participate in
Page 19the selection of my representatives in the government. Why have I never voted in an election? Because the voting system is so antiquated and inefficient. Voting is for me, as it is for most young people, something between a hassle and an impossibility. If you clear the barriers, more people, and especially young people, will vote.
Jennifer Lang, born 1981, college student, The Colony, Texas
You challenge us to become more politically involved, to propose changes in the electoral process that will persuade us to flex our political clout. I challenge you to give us intelligent reasons why we would want to. Why would anyone, young or old, want to become more politically involved? Government by and for the people depends on the size of the people's bank accounts. Issues are skipped like rocks across a pond. How many more Columbine High School tragedies have to happen before stricter gun laws are enforced on the streets, not in the local sports stores? How many more teenage pregnancies and abortions have to occur before sexual education becomes more than a few chapters in a ninth-grade health book?
Melissa M. Flicek, born 1979, college student, St. Paul, Minnesota
Generally, young people do not participate in the electoral process. Being a young person myself, I understand both the importance of being an active citizen of the United States, and the overwhelming, "it doesn't affect me" syndrome. Many young people don't make it a point to vote because political issues usually involve taxes, social security, and welfare reform. These issues, however important, do not relate directly to young people today. It is true these issues will have an effect on us in the future, but right now that seems very far away. Candidates for political office also seem to be rich, smooth-talkers whose loyalties lie more with their political parties than the people whom they represent. It would be nice if everyday citizens had a better chance to run for office, not just the extremely wealthy businessmen, lawyers, and military leaders.
Rozalina Grubina, born 1982, high school student, Brooklyn, New York
My grandparents lived in Latvia most of their lives, and so did my parents. Here, I can become a citizen, despite my nationality and religion. I can vote and be a respected member of society. I consider political involvement not only a privilege of all those fortunate enough to take part in it, but also the duty of my generation. It is only through voting and caring about who our leaders are that we can prevent another holocaust or race riot. Only through voting can we preclude what is now happening in Latvia and Austria from taking place in my new homeland. It is our obligation to build a country of tolerance, not hate, and of peace, not violence.
I believe that my generation must be educated on the importance of politics and the changes that they, themselves, can induce simply by participation. It is not up to the select few to run our country; it is up to us. We can make our voices heard, and we can make a difference. Thus, if young adults realize that they could influence the course of history, voting participation would skyrocket.
Getting Youth Back to the Polls
According to the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) survey, fewer than 20 percent of young people, ages eighteen to twenty-five, participating in the 1998 midterm election. Youth are far and away leading the national trend towards non-voting-and the South is leading the country in numbers of youth who do not vote. In response to that trend, the Fair Representation Program at the Southern Regional Council with Clark Atlanta University's Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy is currently engaged in a comprehensive evaluation of youth political participation and nonparticipation in the South. Called the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), the study will first document the non-voting trend among youth in the South and then develop pilot youth leadership development programs to nurture and grow youth political engagement. For more information about YEP, email the Fair Representation Program at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Call 404-522-8764, or visit www.southerncouncil.org.