It strikes me as funny that we call our political organizations “parties.” For most of us, elections and political parties are the antithesis of fun. It’s no wonder that many young people avoid them. As colleges around the country welcome hordes of students, and politicians feebly attempt to spark interest in the fall election, we should ask why.
I live in a college town, Austin, now the fastest growing city in the country. Young people are moving here in droves, drawn by the city’s creative energy and laid back lifestyle. And they are some of the most active and committed people I know.
I’ve been lucky to get to know many of them since I moved back to town last summer, after many years in New York City. Tanene Allison is developing a new media platform to give a voice to women, people of color and gay and lesbian youth. Cristina Tzintzun organizes low-income construction workers. Michelle Dahlenburg helps incarcerated women through theater and creative writing. John Fiege is making a film about people taking direct action to address climate change. Patrick Slevin launched a youth orchestra for Latinos. I could go on.
So 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).
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 – voting out a leader willing to risk women’s lives to score political points. 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.
Other citizens get how government is supposed to work but are deeply cynical about the political process. This isn’t just youthful ennui. Big money has an outsize influence on both political parties, gerrymandering dilutes votes, and partisan gridlock stalls action on even the most pressing problems. Young people are courted during election season and then ignored or chastised when they demand accountability and solutions. There are still too few candidates who represent the diversity of the younger generation, which is comprised mostly of people of color and immigrants. Recognizing all this, we need to make a better case that voting still matters.
Then there’s the fun factor. The fact is, for many young people – all right, most people – civic engagement is a bore. The phrase “civic engagement” conjures images of neighborhood meetings that plod along in rooms with stained carpets, cheap paneling and fluorescent lighting. Slick, overproduced political rallies and overly earnest sharefests. I know, I’ve been there. I’ve even sponsored a few.
How to remedy these ills? We need to put young people in charge, because they will engage their peers where they’re already active – in community gardens, volunteer networks, sports clubs and cultural hubs. Voting should be tied directly to issues that young people care about, as a natural extension of other forms of involvement, creative expression and collective action. And the best way to counter youth cynicism may be to rub their noses in the stale fruit of inaction – do you really want to have no say in policies that determine whether or not you have a job, what you pay for college, whether climate change ever gets addressed or even acknowledged? Scared straight into voting.
Most importantly, it should be terrific fun to vote and to stay involved after election day. What if the average civic gathering – whether it’s a political rally, grassroots group, school task force, or city council – involved cook-offs, improv or gaming? What if we devised clever ways to scale up what’s working, instead of whining for a living? What if we banned Robert’s Rules of Order and actually got to know one another? It’s no surprise that two of the most effective movements in the last few years have been the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. They threw out tired old forms of engagement and communication, and inspired people to make noise, create political theater, to engage people’s emotions and not just their rational brains.
Some groups are doing things differently now, and we need more like them. The Bus Project in Oregon recruits young people to get on a bus — yes, an actual bus — to engage voters on issues or candidates they believe in. They’ve made even tried and true methods of political organizing more fun, like their Phone Phests: “Vivacious volunteers + tasty treats + delicious drinks + magnificent music + dialing for democracy = the greatest phone calling experience of your sweet young life.”
The League of Young Voters, despite its stodgy name, is masterful at cultural organizing and social media outreach. Check out “Total Recall Live,” the league’s weekly online talk show where an R&B songstress and a D.J. remix news regarding hip-hop and politics.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Conservatives have wisely invested in youth leadership programs for decades, through groups like the Leadership Institute. Their graduates helped Cruz, a Tea Party favorite, win the primary against the candidate of the Republican establishment and Gov. Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
In 2008, as a candidate, Obama dazzled the nation with his ability to inspire millions, including loads of young people, to get involved in political organizing for the first time. And they reached their goal – they elected Obama. Problem was, it was the wrong goal. The party ended, and many were disillusioned when change didn’t happen overnight. Voting is critical, but it is just one step in the broad spectrum of engagement required to advance real change, whatever your goals and ideology. For democracy to flourish, we need people to do it all — vote, volunteer and raise some righteous hell.
Ann Beeson is a senior fellow and lecturer at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas. She was previously the national associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.