The Youth Vote: Why the next generation should make its voice heard in 2008

The campaign for president has dragged on for almost two years now. Despite the range of issues that are at stake (Iraq, the War on Terror, presidential power, the economy, torture, Supreme Court appointments, etc.), it would be easy for people, especially college students, to zone out and not participate. It’s understandable; after all, an individual vote doesn’t matter. The likelihood of casting the deciding vote in a school board election, let alone a presidential election, is about the same as getting hit by an asteroid.

Staying home from voting to get another half hour of Halo or sleep seems like a rational thing to do. However, if college students (or people under 30 in general) don’t vote in the primaries this year, they will have missed a momentous opportunity. This primary election will define how much say young people will have in the years to come, and every single vote matters in the outcome.

The conventional wisdom on young people and voting is that they don’t. Which is accurate. Among almost all variables (age, race, income, education, party, etc.), age is by far the most accurate predictor of whether any individual person is likely to vote. The younger you are, the less likely you are to cast a ballot. There may be some good reasons for this (young people don’t have enough stake in government actions to vote, they are uninformed, etc.), but the practical result is that youthful opinions are excluded from the political process. If the youth vote is insubstantial and will not win elections, why should politicians champion policies that appeal to young people? Since following youthful preferences on the political agenda will not lead to electoral victory, politicians avoid them. The only substantial policy platform offered which directly affects students, the regulation of college loans, is offered more for the parents of students than for students themselves.

It’s pretty bleak for the young since, year after year, people under thirty (and especially people under twenty-five) don’t show up to vote. But the encouraging, hopeful, unbelievable thing is that this time they are. The most reliable group that votes is senior citizens, and in the Iowa caucus as many people under 30 voted as people who were over 60, normally the most reliable block of voters. In New Hampshire, too, the percentage of young people who made up the total vote was almost double what it had been in 2004.

It’s happening: young people are turning out to vote. With this increased electoral strength comes increased electoral power. Politicians will begin to tailor their policies and stances on major issues to please youthful voters. And, since there are an overwhelming number of youthful people in the country, the changes will most likely be in the immediate short term. Young people comprise one of the biggest demographic blocks; if they start turning up to vote, their political power will be felt very quickly.

There is, of course, a “but”. The above scenario will only come true if young people continue to vote in primaries during the course of the election. If youth participation tails off, then politicians and pundits will write off youthful voters as fickle, indecisive, and unable to follow the twists and turns of a normal competitive election. Politicians will not want to base their chances on an unreliable voting block. If voting among the young does not continue at the established record-setting levels, young people will again be consigned to the backwaters of American politics.

That may sound pessimistic, but it is tempered by the fact that every vote a young person casts matters. No matter who it is for, the very act of someone under thirty voting will increase the clout of the young. Whereas voting for a candidate has an infinitesimal chance of actually making a difference, the act of voting definitely and concretely adds to the number of young people who voted, and so increases the power of the young.

The young vote does not have to be the deciding factor in the race in order to establish clout. As long as they turn out in force, young people will announce their presence as a potential group which may grant political power. Even in a non-competitive race (Obama will win Illinois even if he promises to cede all of the Quad Cities to Iowa), turnout among the young will announce their ascendancy to political participation; it will mean that they can be counted on to show up, and to respond to political overtures.

The opportunity for political advancement doesn’t come without the chance to slide to further irrelevancy. The early turnout among the young established this election as one which will either give the young unprecedented say in the political process, or further marginalize them. If turnout decreases, if the wave of students and twenty-somethings lessens and abates, it will be much harder to convince politicians that the youth vote is anything more than a fragile mirage, unable to reliably exist or support anything substantial.

In 2000, Howard Dean energized students and the youthful six months before the primaries. Come voting day he found himself flailing and without substantial support, and the young were once again deemed too flighty to take seriously. The turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2008 ensured that the youth vote again will be analyzed and tested for resiliency. A steady, substantial increase in the youth vote will mean unprecedented access to the political system, but a decrease in the turnout will confirm the conventional wisdom of the youth vote: unsteady; unpredictable; irrelevant. To overcome this conclusion of irrelevancy in later elections, the youth vote would have to skyrocket to outlandish proportions to banish thoughts of earlier skittishness. The chance to be heard exists, but so does the risk of increasing an already substantial case of political impotency.

Go out and vote. Register in Illinois or get an absentee ballot and vote. Normally, no, it doesn’t matter whether one individual votes or not. This is different. Your vote really will make a difference. Your vote (or lack of one) will help determine the political relevancy of the young for as long as you are young. Go. Vote.