Students eager to buck apathetic voting trend
“The right to vote — is the primary right by which other rights are protected.” Thomas Paine
In a 1944 painting titled "America at the Polls," artist Norman Rockwell depicted lines of eager voters crowding into a small, cramped polling precinct ready to cast their ballots. Not a face among them could be misconstrued as someone younger than 30.
Today, the electoral participation of America's youth on Election Day is as absent as it was displayed in the painting and a far cry from the Rockwellian portrait of democratic bliss.
According to a 2002 study commissioned by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, hard facts outline the failure of America's youth to help shape the future political landscape:
- In 1972, the newly adopted 26th Amendment made it legal for 18-year-olds to vote in federal elections. The amendment reads "the rights of citizens of the United States who are 18 years or older to vote shall not be denied or abridged." It seems to have had little effect on young voters as a whole. A study indicates turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds has declined between 13 and 15 percent in the 32 years since the 26th Amendment became law.
- During the presidential election in 2000, just 42 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, compared with higher figures for the 25- to 30-year-old demographic. The difference increases as voters grow older.
- Older Americans perceive their younger counterparts as lazy and indifferent to the importance of Election Day. Their feelings may be summed up by a Marshall McLuhan quote: "American youth attribute much more importance o arriving at a driver's license age than at voting age." By contrast, younger voters typically cited feelings of disconnect with politicians, partisan politics and the personal attacks usually at the core of most political campaigns.
Is America failing its youth or are they failing America? For the Montana-based Project Vote Smart, the question is irrelevant. The organization is one of the few in the country that both promotes young voting and compiles information on candidates for voter review.
Vote Smart members said placing blame for the absenteeism of young voters isn't important. Curbing the trend, a process that feeds on itself, is more pressing. If young people ignore voting, the system, in turn, will ignore them, members said.
Project Vote Smart members contend some of the most important social, economic and political reforms in history have come from the idealism, voices and actions of America's youth. It's time to bring back into the fray those from Generation Next that have strayed from voting duties, members said.
As The Sentinel learned this week, some young adults are already preparing to take the step. Although they're not old enough to vote yet, a group of local high school seniors said they're more than able to become the new faces of American democracy.
Will they vote?
If America's next wave of policy makers is capsulated by several Basehor-Linwood High School seniors -- young adults a year away from voting age -- then maybe tides of change can evaporate the current wave of young voter lethargy.
"Definitely," Ben Robertson said. "I'm very opinionated. I want my vote to be heard. I'll get all my friends to vote, too. It's important, we know that, but a lot of people still don't care."
"It's actually something we have a say in, so why not?" said Emily Hatfield.
"We're the generation that is fighting. If (young voters) are not big enough to fight, then the least they can do is vote for their rights."
Would the voters-to-be have the same optimism if they knew their ballot might be cast for a losing cause? James Nelson and Amy Rousselo said that the process is worth more than the outcome.
"The government affects all of us," Rousselo said. "(Young voters) should at least put in the time to say they had an impact on it."
"I feel even if it doesn't impact things, it's important to voice what you believe," Nelson said. "At least let people know you're there"
What separates young voter beliefs from their older counterparts? Not much, according to local students.
Polls indicate the majority of overall voters rank the war in Iraq, education, economy and crime prevention as their chief concerns.
The most common response from students when asked their primary focus on issues was roughly the same. Also, students cited marriage rights, abortion, foreign policy and the rising cost of college tuition as issues they follow closely.
Furthermore, these students may not be as liberal in their thought process as older voters might believe. Several students indicated a resurgence of morals and values is necessary in today's society, especially inside the halls of government.
"I think it's an important part of government," said Jessica Crosby.
"It's important for people to be accountable for the actions they say and do," Rousselo said.
Crux of the problem
Abraham Lincoln once said, "the ballot box is stronger than the bullet." Yet studies and polls indicate that many young voters aren't voting because they believe indifference is a weapon in rebelling against the machine they think ignores them.
"A lot of people don't vote because they don't care," Robertson said. "They don't think anyone cares (about they're opinions) so they're not going to vote and do something about it."
"Society gives young voters (the impression) that their ideas and opinions don't matter -- so they don't want to take the time to go vote," Rousselo said.
"People are losing interest because they don't have opinions of their own," Nelson said. "They don't look at things through their own eyes.
"If they don't see it every day, they don't believe it affects them."
Hope for the future
Noah Simpson, a history and government teacher at Basehor-Linwood High School, said the eagerness of students embodies the beliefs and opinions of about half the overall student body.
"I think that it's still about 50-50," Simpson said. "Some of the students are becoming interested, while others are still not."
By and large, students have been following this year's presidential campaign with the same interest as their adult peers.
However, and perhaps like many adult voters, students can't grasp why it's necessary for the candidates to commence in a race for the moral high-ground by trashing the personalities of their opponents.
They don't understand what relevance a Swift Boat has to their future. They don't understand what a war 30 years ago has to do with the one today. Mainly, Simpson said, students find themselves upset that candidates would rather tarnish each other than focus efforts on finding a cure to America's ills.
"They are not bothered by all of the side talk and we are still trying to focus on the issues at hand and leave all of the political back-stabbing out of the picture," Simpson said.
The bad news is that the ugly side of politics will dissuade some from ever entering the polling place. The good news? At least students are weighing in on the issues, which is a step in the right direction, Simpson said.
"It's reassuring to know that the younger generation is starting to pick up politics again," Simpson said. "It is nice to know that students are starting to pay attention to the news and to the issues that will affect them in many ways."