News & Politics

Fanning the Flames of Youth Civic Engagement

Progressives need to make sure that young people's excitement over the primaries turns into long-term civic engagement.
"I am so, so, so excited," my wildly effective 18-year-old intern Krystie Yandoli told me, sitting on my couch and leafing through a new anthology in between bites of chocolate croissant. "At first I didn't know -- should I wait until I get to Syracuse and do it there or should I do it in Connecticut where I'm from? I seriously can't wait." Krystie, headed to the Syracuse University in the fall to study politics and journalism, is not talking about getting a tattoo or buying an iPhone. She's feverishly anticipating her first chance to vote in a presidential election.

As we finish the final contests of the primaries, young people are excited about politics. According to PBS News Hour, 5.7 million people under the age of 30 voted in the primaries, a 109 percent increase from last presidential election. And before you write this enthusiasm off as merely a passing fad of Obama mania (he got 57 percent of the youth vote in Iowa, for example), look at recent history: In 2004, youth turnout in the general election rose by 4.3 million votes over the 2000 level, and hit the highest level in over a decade.

To be sure, many young people were profoundly disappointed by Bush's re-election (and for good reason, I might add), and a seed of serious cynicism has been planted by voting snafus so rampant in the last two elections (think Ohio and Florida). Some young people -- especially those without college educations or suburban upbringings -- are skeptical about whether their vote will really count. But this population has been especially moved by Obama's biography and "yes we can" spirit; the star of hip hopper's wildly popular YouTube video has done especially well among young people of color and first-time voters.

The challenge ahead is to keep the excitement over the primaries alive until November, but what's more, make sure that civic engagement becomes an organic part of young people's frenetic lives from here on out. There are a few key ways that we can ensure this happens.

First, we need to create a culture of voting that mirrors the culture of volunteerism already so ingrained in young people's lives. According to the 2006 Harvard Youth Survey on Politics and Public Survey, 65 percent of youth don't define themselves as politically engaged but 51 percent of them attest to participating in community service.

Universities and religious institutions -- which have largely influenced the upsurge in community service among youth -- need to emphasize the virtue of getting involved in civic education organizations like Declare Yourself, Young People For, The Hip Hop Action Network, The League of Young Voters, Young Voters PAC, Generation Engage, and Rock the Vote.

Organizations like the Interfaith Youth Corps could start energizing those on the left to make civic education as integral to the spiritual experience as it has been on the right.

Second, we need to do everything in our power to make sure that votes count this November. The ACLU's Voting Rights Project and the Brennan Center of Justice's Blueprint on Reform are efforts already underway to make sure people are protected in the 2008 election. In addition, young people who are away at college need to be educated about the absentee ballot process well in advance of Election Day and all young people, who move far more frequently than older adults, should make sure they're registered with their local Board of Elections and know where they're supposed to vote when the time comes.

And finally, we need to continue to support outlets where young people are creating their own culture of political cool. Living Liberally, which hosts DrinkingLiberally, LaughingLiberally, ScreeningLiberally, and EatingLiberally, was founded by two young men interested in linking political identity and social interaction. The Roosevelt Institution, also founded by a young person, is the nation's first student think tank. Those younger than 18 are even catching the political fever by blogging about issues that are important to them at New School Politics and participating in mock elections in their high school civics classes.

Krystie got excited about politics through one such experience -- Laurel Girls State. Programs like it, which give high school aged girls a chance to participate in the democratic process over a weeklong camp, can be found throughout the nation (often sponsored by local American Legion Auxiliaries). Krystie remembers vividly how Secretary of State for Connecticut Susan Bysiewicz talked about why it was especially important for women to participate in politics. Krystie explains, "She encouraged us to really think about which party would protect women's interests the most effectively as we get the right to vote." Krystie, for one, is totally excited to exercise that right come November.

This article was originally posted by The Women's Media Center at The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making the female half of the world visible and powerful in the media.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. You can read more about her work at
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Election 2018