Building the Youth Vote Is About Building Infrastructure
The commentary on the youth voter turnout in 2010 is not particularly surprising. Even though initial youth turnout estimates of 20.9 percent put this year on par with, if not ever-so-slightly below, other recent midterms, there’s still the usual back-and-forth between advocates and media about whether youth showed up to the polls. We also see the usual pundits’ criticisms and disappointment in young people, as though the turnout rate is just about individual decision-making.
In an attempt to contribute a different perspective to the conversation, let’s step way back from today. Over the four decades since the voting age was lowered to 18, has anything been put into place to support ongoing youth voting? What processes and infrastructure exist to ensure youth voter turnout? Public, nonprofit, and private institutions that could help have varying commitments to sustained youth participation.
The first and most obvious place to begin looking for youth voter support is supported is youth-focused organizations, especially those that focus on political engagement. These are the folks spending hours upon hours canvassing, taking care of voter registration cards, arranging get out the vote (GOTV) efforts, phonebanking, and much more.
Yet, more often than not, these organizations are scraping by, trying to piece together private funding each year to pay the organizers doing this work. In 2004, $40 million was invested in youth voting by various philanthropic organizations, according to a 2006 article by Tobi Walker in the National Civic Review. This investment did turn out youth and led to important research about best practices. But the reality of nonprofit funding is that the interests and focus of funders change, leaving youth organizations that work on voting in an uncertain place each election cycle.
The second place to look is schools. While youth organizations have proven to be life-changing for some young people, public schools that have the widest reach. And one of the reasons public schools were created was to promote civic education—which makes it seem that encouraging voting in schools would shore up strong support. But the reality in which civic education plays out today, though, is nowhere near achieving this goal. Opportunities young people have to learn about democracy, to learn basic information about how government works, vary considerably by school and are scarcest where they are needed most—in schools serving low-income kids. School systems are not operating in a way that will equitably build communities of voters and civic actors.
The third place to look to supporting youth engagement is political parties. President Barack Obama’s campaign increased hopes that political parties had learned an important lesson about building a youth constituency. In 2010, we saw record millions spent on midterm campaigns by parties and candidates hoping to affect voter sentiment and consequent turnout. Yet the funds are too often invested in ad buys rather than strategies that promote engagement. Research has shown that having interactive conversations through canvassing can lead to a seven to ten percentage point increase in youth voting [PDF]. The personal, interactive strategies that have been proven successful with young voters require an intentional investment of time and money that the transactional campaign process has failed to provide.
The final institution that needs to be addressed on this subject is one the United States does not have, but could: A national “non-partisan public electoral authority.” One of the central researchers in this area is Henry Milner, a political scientist at the University of Montreal, (CIRCLE recently published his comparison of the political knowledge acquisition of young Americans and young Canadians.) Milner points out that:
The many specific actions undertaken by non-partisan public electoral authorities in other countries to address declining youth participation, must, in the U.S., typically be left to voluntary associations. Even registering young people so that they are eligible to vote in federal elections depends on local initiatives.
The voluntary associations to which Milner refers have become increasingly numerous in the United States as community service initiatives and appropriations for the Corporation for National and Community Service increase.
This is exciting for a lot of reasons, but creates two problems when related to voting. First, the field of youth engagement is often fragmented into more nuanced divisions—such as youth voting, volunteerism and community service, political advocacy, youth media, civic education, and others—that do not intersect as often as they could or should.
Second, the places where youth participation are seeing the most growth and support, such as service, often involve efforts that are intentionally trying to avoid a tinge of voting or politics, which are controversial in a system that often only funds nonpartisan efforts. Introducing ideas that are explicitly or implicitly connected to politics can be seen as dangerous in maintaining nonpartisan status and, thus, funding.
These circumstances leave us riveted each election night to see if enough resources were invested in youth to build on previous years. The approaches to youth engagement that I have mentioned are not the only ones that might impact youth voting (the civic role of the media and many other factors also play a role). Regardless of approach, however, youth voting must have continuous commitment and intentionality in order to truly build ongoing increases in youth political participation.
Until and unless we decide that youth voter participation is something worthy of investing time and resources into, we will continue to place unreasonably high expectations on a haphazard infrastructure that is not designed to sustain youth engagement.
Abby Kiesa is a youth coordinator and researcher at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
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