<< The Body Politic

Scared straight into the voting booth

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Over at The New York Times‘s “Campaign Stops” blog, Ann Beeson, a lecturer at the University of Texas and former legal director of the ACLU, notices that many young people are very involved in different civic organizations, but that few of them actually vote.

After listing off a group of young activists she knows–most of whom presumably do not vote–she ponders the question: “Why do so few young people vote?”

In the recent run-off elections to select Senate candidates for the race this fall in Texas (there was one for Democrats and one for Republicans) only 8.5% of eligible voters showed up. These determined citizens essentially decided the outcome in November, given the extreme odds against a Democrat defeating the Republican run-off winner, Ted Cruz. Though Texas is certainly ground zero for weak voter participation, even national averages for young people (18-35) have teetered just around 50% for most presidential elections, and they’re half that in non-presidential election years – 24% in the 2010 midterm elections.

While the percentage of young people who vote has actually grown incrementally during the last few presidential elections, we have yet to return to the voting levels of the early 1970s. Turnout was 55% in 1972–just after the 26th Amendment to the Constitution added millions of young voters to the rolls by dropping the voting age from 21 to 18. To offer a more stark comparison, voter turnout rates have topped 70% in Canada, 79% in France, and 96% in Australia (where voting is compulsory).

Quoting these sobering statistics, older generations love to bemoan the antipathy of youth, the lack of a culture of civic participation in America. At a dinner party I hosted recently, dour comments flowed. While it was hardly a representative group–the guests included journalists, advocates, a documentary filmmaker and a government official–their remarks were typical: “When I was young everybody got involved in politics, but my kids just don’t care;” “Young people have given up on government, and it’s our fault because government sucks;” “Occupy was so inspiring at first, but I guess they all just wanted to camp.”

These comments ignore other forms of youth engagement that may tell us something about why young people can be enthusiastic volunteers and organizers but tepid voters. Three causes are worth exploring. First of all, many young people just don’t see the connection between voting and their commitment to improve their communities, advocate for a cause, or change the world. Secondly, there are very real grounds for political cynicism. And finally, let’s face it, civic engagement can be a snore.

The missing link between issue advocacy and voting struck me forcefully when I discovered that many of the young women who rallied recently at the state capitol to protest Gov. Rick Perry’s attack on Planned Parenthood hadn’t voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election. They had skipped a step in the policymaking process that might’ve kept them out of the heat. […] I’ve also met plenty of bike-riding young people who are passionate about saving the environment, fanatic about composting, obsessed with their carbon footprint–but they don’t vote either.

Writing in the Academic Questions journal, Diana Schaub, professor of politics at University of Loyola Maryland, notes that recent efforts in citizenship education–like the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement’s report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future–have emphasized “local and global generative partnerships” and “transformative” alliances, but that this form of education ends up being a civic education without a country. She continues:

One can imagine [Thomas] Jefferson responding favorably to A Crucible Moment‘s endorsement of “active civics.” Book learning can and should be supplemented with a kind of internship in liberty that allows young people to try their hand at self-government. In addition to time-honored pursuits like mock elections, trials, and legislatures, as well as student government and debate, the report strongly recommends service learning as a more contemporary method for developing what Tocqueville called “the art of association.” Unfortunately, however, the report associates active citizenship almost solely with activism; participation seems always to be for the purpose of change, especially systemic change, rather than conservation (with the predictable exception of environmental conservation). […]

Like the authors of A Crucible Moment, Jefferson saw the need for civic learning to permeate education from start to finish, with increasing expectations and sophistication as students proceed. There are, however, significant differences in the two approaches. Jefferson is attentive to the unique demands of the American constitutional order. Our political system is representative in nature. All citizens must be prepared to fill the offices of elector and juror (and, as Jefferson insists, that requires no small degree of diligence and judgment), but only a subset will fill higher public offices. A Crucible Moment manifests no recognition of this, and indeed, seems intent on rejecting or denying it. The word “democracy” is continually evoked but never once with the qualifier “representative.” This is a civics that is not rooted in the actual ground of the civitas.

One cannot help but wonder if this decline in actual civic education has also contributed to young citizens not taking voting seriously.