Since the 26th Amendment bumped the legal voting age down to 18 from 21 in 1971, "young people" have voted in gradually smaller numbers in every single election cycle. An estimated 37% of this demographic cast ballots in 2000, compared with around 50% of the entire eligible population. I am one of these young people.
The right to vote is the essence of democracy. It's why the U.S. government is a government of the people. If people fail to exercise this right, they shouldn't be surprised when politicians fail to address their concerns. Issues like prescription drugs and Medicare get lots of attention, because they are of great importance to senior citizens, who traditionally vote in huge numbers.
Even when candidates appear to be addressing the concerns of young voters, it is often a façade. When Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards addressed the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night and promised a tax credit to help pay for college, he wasn't addressing struggling students, but their parents--a group much more likely to turn up on election day.
The tax credit was offered "to help your child have the same chance I had and be the first person in your family to go to college, a tax break on up to $4,000 in tuition." The words "your child" are
key here. It is almost surprising that Edwards, a gifted orator renowned for his ability to connect with disparate groups in his speeches, didn't put plead directly to young people for their votes in his convention speech. Had he done so, it would have been such an anomaly for such a high-profile speech that it almost certainly would have stood out.
Young peoples' failure to vote creates a vicious cycle. The more detached young people become, the less likely they are to vote. The less likely they are to vote, the less attention politicians give them. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Perhaps the greatest barrier between youth and the voting booth is the sense that politics have little bearing on individual lives. Many of my peers have a hard time perceiving the link between a political outcome and their own life. And it didn't help that Howard Dean's spirited run for the Democratic nomination, fueled by so many young people, faded during the primaries. But young people didn't bring down the campaign. They were probably responsible for whatever success it had in the first
This perception gap is especially startling considering that my generation is going to have to bear the weight of whatever economic and political problems we now face--lack of jobs, deficits, the possibility of an impending military draft. More young people than ever are entering the work force deeply in debt. The Village Voice recently dubbed my generation "Generation Debt," citing statistics that fewer of us than ever are able to pay for health care, college, rent or mortgages, and basic necessities ... and not wind up in the red.
It is my generation that has the most to lose from whatever happens to our country and the world after this election-if for no other reason than we are going to be around longer than any other voting bloc.
If politicians really want to harness the power of the youth vote, they need to understand that traditional signs of economic success barely apply to our generation anymore. Home ownership rates don't mean anything if we face foreclosure in five years. The fact that we have a job is nice, but it'd be nicer to make more than $7 an hour. We may not be homeless or starving, but it sure is disenchanting to realize we may never climb out of debt.
Just as young people must make the connection between politics and their lives, candidates must draw a link between the issues of young people and their political fates. If one group or the other can manage to take the first step and show that they are in fact aware of their joined destiny, politicians may begin to address our needs and young people may begin casting more ballots. Otherwise, the disconnect between young people and politics will grow into a gaping chasm.