Taking Back the Youth Vote

Following has been adapted from Jane Eisner's new book, "Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy."

With the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, the dream of universal suffrage in America came close to being realized. By granting the right to vote to 18-year-olds – those Americans who were old enough to fight but not old enough to vote – the nation had ended a struggle that had taken centuries, a struggle to ensure that every adult could become an active citizen, no matter his or her race, gender or economic background.

And there was the palpable belief that these new voters would improve the political system with their intelligence, idealism, and energy.

"The future, to repeat a truism, is in their hands," said the Senate Majority Leader at the time, Michael J. Mansfield, a Montana Democrat. "If it is to be a better nation and a better world – and I'm confident that it will be – the youth of today will make it so. I think the time is long overdue when they should be given more in the way of recognition, more in the way of public responsibility... I am sure the contribution will be significant."

Sadly, Mansfield's optimist predictions were never realized. The hoped-for surge of young people into the electoral process, with all the attendant reforms and improvements they would bring, has not happened in the three decades since. Instead, the participation by 18-to-20-year-olds in the 1972 presidential turned out to be the high point of their electoral involvement. Voter turnout among young people has, literally, been downhill ever since.

In 1972, 49.6 percent of the nation's 18-to-24-year-olds voted; the percentage dropped to a third in the razor-thin 2000 election. Among 18-year-olds that year, only 26.7 percent said they cast a ballot. The numbers in off-year elections and primaries will make you cry.

And even though it's true that voting rates in all age groups have declined, youth voting has taken a much steeper path downward. By one measurement, overall participation in presidential elections dropped 4 percent since 1972; among 18-to-25-year-olds, the drop was 15 percent.

It's not that they don't care. For sound reasons, they are directing their considerable civic energies elsewhere. Turned off by politicians who ignore them, they are volunteering in record numbers, tutoring underprivileged children, cleaning up state parks, building homes for the homeless.

"Community service is the new politics," says Ganesh Sitaraman, who coauthored "Invisible Citizens: Youth Politics after September 11" while a student at Harvard University. "The thing to be involved with in the Sixties was political protests. That's now being completely replaced by community service. Even schools are promoting the idea of service instead of politics as an alternative way of creating change."

But this alternative could have grave consequences for our government and our democracy. Helping kids to read in a volunteer after-school program is not going to get them the new building they badly need. That's still government's job. Clearing paths in an overgrown state park cannot replace the need for broader conservation measure to preserve our natural resources and environment, which only the public sector can do.

We have to help young people connect the dots, to understand that it is not enough to serve soup in a soup kitchen – we must work to end the conditions that caused hunger in the first place.

Unfortunately, a decline in civic education in American schools over the last three decades has left young people unaware of the principles of our democracy and the role of local, state and national governments. In our rush to improve verbal and math testing scores, we've dropped one of the most essential roles of schools in a democracy: To help the next generation learn the tools necessary to become active citizens.

We haven't given young people a reason to vote, and they have acted accordingly. Yet, as we are seeing in the heightened interest in this 2004 presidential election campaign, these trends can turn around. Compelling issues and exciting candidates help, of course, but in the long run, the nation needs to address more fundamental obstacles to voting.

And there are many. If you have ever tried to secure an absentee ballot for a child in college or overseas, you know how hard it is to do. The nation has always been brilliant at granting the right to vote, and then making it difficult to actually accomplish. That still exists today.

So the first thing we must do is eradicate the many barriers to voting that disproportionately affect young people. Only a handful of states offer same-day registration. Every state should. Experience shows that being able to register on the day you vote increases turnout overall, and especially among young people.

We should also make it easier to vote by merging Veterans Day and Election Day into one national holiday devoted to the exercise of the democracy. Lest you think this is a wide-eyed idea from a liberal journalist, please note: This move was recommended by a blue-ribbon panel appointed after the 2000 election debacle and headed by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, both decorated war veterans.

Not only would a national holiday make it easier to vote, it would make it possible to staff polling places with volunteers, now a pressing concern.

Young people don't vote because in ways large and small, we don't ask them to. Politicians don't address their concerns, advertise on their television shows, talk to their radio programs. That is beginning to change in this election, as candidates realize the untapped potential of the millions of young people who make up the highly-prized "undecided" category of American politics.

Finally, the nation is waking up to the fact that millions of young people are graduating from high school without being registered to vote. That must change. But registration is only the first step.

The best research on this subject – and there now is fine scholarship on how to motivate voters – tells us that the most effective way to get young people to the polls is to ask them, personally. Knock on the door on the Sunday before the election. Give them information on when, where and how to vote – not even who to vote for. Help them get to the polls, and they will.

I've developed my own ritual that has not yet been scientifically tested, but I believe will work. And that is to publicly celebrate a young adult's First Vote. Think of it: We record soccer games and dance recitals, fuss over bar mitzvahs and proms, but the first time a young person performs this central act of citizenship, it is generally greeted by a collective yawn.

So I urge you to hold a First Vote assembly in your school. Read their names aloud on radio stations and in church the Sunday after the election. Take them for pizza. Buy them flowers. Offer them free tickets to the school football game or the next dance. Organize a community celebration.

Do something to mark the day. This generation of Americans is not only the brightest, most educated this nation has ever seen. They have estimable qualities of compassion, tolerance, egalitarianism. They can become a new Greatest Generation if we give them the tools and encouragement to be active citizens. Help them take back the vote.

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