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Are Young People Too Smart to Vote?

Perhaps young people don't vote because they have a better sense than adults that our political system truly is broken.
 
 
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This election season, once again young people will not vote in very great numbers. In the 1998 midterm election, only 12 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 8.5 percent of 18-19 year olds voted, and this year will be about the same.

And yet a recent study funded by Pew Charitable trust found that young people are volunteering in their communities more than ever. Young people are not apathetic, but most find little connection between volunteering and voting. While volunteering is viewed as a way to "give back" and help one's community, voting doesn't inspire the same sentiments.

So why don't young people vote? Perhaps young people don't vote because they have a better sense than adults that our political system truly is broken, particularly from the point of view of a young person.

For instance, a recent survey conducted by Harvard University found that 83.5 percent of 18-24 year olds said that they had not been contacted by any political party during the 2000 election season. On the other hand it is well documented that both parties went out of their way to connect with the 65-and-over population.

Why are candidates going after one group of voters and relegating the other to the political sidelines?

One obvious reason is that seniors vote in greater numbers than young people. Politicians court likely voters, and that creates a vicious cycle: Young people don't vote because they aren't courted, and they aren't courted because they don't vote.

But a more careful reading reveals something more broken about our "winner take all" political system. In close electoral contests -- such as our last presidential election, or in a handful of races that will determine control for the U.S. House and Senate -- a small minority of voters has much greater influence than the rest of us. This is the group known as the almighty "swing voters." Swing voters are undecided voters, and in close races politicians court them because swing voters decide which candidate will win .

It just so happens that, not only are seniors more likely to vote than young people, but also many of them are fiscal conservatives who are more likely to be swing voters than young people. Think back to the presidential election, what were the issues that mostly were addressed -- Medicare, prescription drugs and Social Security lockboxes. All important issues, but there were a lot more issues out there and constituencies that cared about them, yet they were overlooked. Why? Because in the zero-sum game of "winner take all" politics, polls and focus groups are used to figure out which group of voters to talk to, and which group of voters to ignore.

As one twentysomething said during the last presidential campaign, "I feel like if you are not 65 years old and have arthritis, these candidates have nothing to say to you."

"Winner take all" campaigns have become a matter of targeting the right demographic using polls and focus groups. But as Mario Velasquez, president of Rock the Vote, which registers young people to vote, has said: "Demography, I like to say, is the death of democracy. If you have precision demographics, you are only talking to people who vote, not to the entire country."

Young people aren't the only ones being left out by the "precision demographics" of our "winner take all" system. Racial minorities and poor people also usually are excluded from candidate appeals. The incentives of our "winner take all" system fragment our nation, as politicians and their consultants use polls and focus groups to slice and dice the electorate. In the process, whole swaths of people -- potential voters -- are dropped from the invite list of our 'invitation-only' elections. Demographics, it turns out, is destiny.

Change certainly is needed. Other nations experience much higher voter turnout rates because they don't use our "winner take all" system. Instead they use what is known as proportional representation, which creates multi-party democracy where voters have more political choice, more competitive elections, and more people's issues are addressed by the various parties and their candidates.

Other necessary changes include instant runoff voting, Election Day as a national holiday, Election Day voter registration (Prop. 52 on the California ballot) and public financing of elections. Not surprisingly, nations that employ these practices enjoy much higher rates of voting among all people, including young people, poor people, and others who are left out of our political system.

More than adults, young people seem intuitively to recognize that our political system is broken. And they register their awareness on Election Day by not bothering to participate in what to them is a pretty meaningless exercise. So when you see the low numbers for voter turnout this time, don't think of it as apathy. Think of it as the wisdom of youth.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press). Rashad Robinson is the Center's field director.