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Will Young Voters Steal the Show in 2012? Maybe, If Lawmakers Listen

In 2008, young voters were the big story. Both parties will attempt to woo them this time around--but are they paying attention to the issues that matter?

 Before the 99 percent captured the world’s attention, another number helped energize an often overlooked part America’s electorate: 58 percent. That’s the percentage of black voters between the ages of 18 and 29 who showed up at the polls in 2008 to elect the country’s first African American president. It was an extraordinarily promising number; in an election that drew its strength from the eagerness of young voters, black youth led the charge. Nearly two million more black voters between the ages of 18 and 24 cast ballots in 2008 than they did in 2004. While white voter turnout stayed relatively the same as it had been when George W. Bush won a second turn, the 2008 election showed that young voters of color—including records numbers of young Latino and Asian voters—were now a statistically significant voice in America’s democratic future. 

Obama’s brand of political change turned out to be a painstakingly gradual one—and, at times, frustrating. So it’s no surprise that political skepticism and an eager conservative base helped lead to lower voter turnout numbers in 2010. But as the 2012 presidential election kicks into full gear, operatives from both parties will be looking to engage younger voters. And as they do, they’ll have to pay attention to what drives young folks into the political process, and how they’ve managed to turn that process inside out.

Shortly before the 2010 congressional elections, I spent some time  reporting from Milwaukee. Though Wisconsin’s election of Gov. Scott “I-hate-public-workers” Walker that year turned out to be part of a conservative tide that washed over America, Milwaukee had already long been a symbol America’s neglect. It’s a poor, deindustrialized city with mostly black and brown residents and few jobs. But the young organizers I spoke to had used those facts to help galvanize their peers. While the 2008 election had been their coming-of-age of sorts, they embraced the opportunity to shape their own destinies precisely because they could see clearly what was at stake.

“If no one gets out to vote, it’s gonna stay the same,” Romero Jackson, a 25-year-old organizer told me. “Like a Twilight Zone.”

Since then, young organizers from around the country have used political disappointments as a call-to-action, one that’s not dependent on the political showmanship on Capitol Hill.

That’s especially true for those who are still fighting for their right to participate in democracy. After the federal DREAM Act was defeated in the Senate last year, undocumented youth turned up the pressure in their own way. As  Rinku Sen pointed out earlier this week, that shift among immigration rights advocates was a decidedly cultural one intended to show that people without papers are, in fact, people. Some took to making funny videos that poked fun at the awkwardness of trying to have a social life while undocumented. Jonathan Perez, 25, and Isaac Barrera, 20, engaged in some good, old-fashioned civil disobedience in protest of Alabama’s draconian HB 56 and  spent days in federal detention. The young folks of the Oakland, Calif.-based coalition  67 Sueños challenged the traditional immigrant narrative altogether and pointed out that the majority of undocumented people in the U.S. wouldn’t quality for DREAM Act legislation even if it did become law. In April, the group painted a mural in downtown San Francisco that helped  drive their message home.

Even for those of us who do have the privilege of legal citizenship, there’s still no guarantee that we’ll have a voice in the country’s upcoming elections. The defining fight of 2012 will arguably be who’s able to actually cast a ballot on election day. In 2011, conservatives pushed an aggressive legislative agenda to pass dozens of strict voter ID laws in several states. Across the country, there are 19 new voter ID laws, and more than 40 are still pending in state legislatures. The new laws claim to address the Republican-backed myth of “voter fraud” and require eligible voters to obtain select forms of identification at the polls — and endeavor that’s proven to be  costly and unnecessary. A  new study released in October by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU estimated that the new laws could affect five million voters, the majority of whom are poor, young, or color. Attorney General  Eric Holder vowed this month to use his power to protect voters, and in 2012, he’ll need plenty of on-the-ground help.

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