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Rock the Vote: why teenagers matter in elections

Julian E. Zelizer and John A. Lawrence

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We are on the cusp of a historic midterm election. This November,  Americans will go to the polls to elect the 116th  Congress, governors and state and local officials. The outcome will determine the balance of power for the next two years in Washington and, within the states, shape the battles over congressional redistricting after the 2020 census.

There is a great deal that we don’t know about in terms of what will happen on election day. The polls suggest that many of the campaigns have tightened significantly in recent weeks. Since the confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Republicans appeared to have gained some momentum, though Democratic voters are also eager to restrain President Trump. A great deal will depend on turnout on November 6—the simple question of which party can bring more people to the ballot box.

Unfortunately, if history serves as a predictor, young voters – those 18-30 – will vote in the lowest percentage of any demographic group.

Both of us have spent much of our career working in politics. As Chief of Staff for former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, John Lawrence has seen first-hand the impact that politics has on the daily life of every American, and the impact that every act of political participation has on the composition of Congress. By teaching students at Princeton University and writing about politics for the general public, Julian Zelizer has been able to see the challenges of engaging younger Americans in our difficult political process and trying to inspire them to participate in campaigns.

There is good reason that many younger Americans don’t turnout to vote. They have plenty of reason to be discouraged, even skeptical about the American political system. For most of their lives, they have experienced hyper-partisanship, negative campaign advertising, smashmouth partisan battles, obscene amounts of special interest campaign spending, and legislative gridlock. Every day they hear that Washington is broken and Washington provides ample evidence that the pundits might be right. One could almost conclude there is an intentional effort to alienate young people from participating in the political system.

But young people make a serious mistake when they allow the disappointment to translate into political inaction. Even though the American political system is often frustrating, there are historic moments of breakthrough. It is important to remember that while our current politics seems hopelessly polarized and ineffective, just a decade ago a divided government (a Republican president and Democratic Congress) was able to put aside deep disagreements and distrust on the eve of a crucial election and rescue the country (and perhaps the world) from a near economic collapse. In the election that followed in November 2008, younger Americans did participate, excited by the fresh voice that then-Senator Barack Obama offered, and helped elect a president who would move through Congress  health care, an economic stimulus, and financial regulation. In other words, just because politics is broken doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Young people have the potential to elect officials who will create the windows of opportunity to transform our policies.

There’s no debating that the state of our political institutions has deteriorated since 2008, but the underlying lesson is the same: engagement, reaching across partisan lines, and seeking workable solutions all depend on people putting aside disagreements and working together to find answers. And that is especially true for young people who have the most at stake, because this country is going to be their responsibility soon, and for decades to come. We currently face massive long-term issues, such as climate change and economic inequality, that will have huge ramifications for those Americans who are only now starting their adult lives. Allowing for political inaction today will most impact younger Americans who will be paying the price for our current problems when they have families and careers of their own.

It is important to remember that non-participation in politics empowers those who disagree with you. Those who vote regularly, in presidential and mid-term elections, tend to be older, whiter and more conservative than the American population as a whole. And their views on many policy issues tend to be different from the majority. The kinds of issues young people have been clamoring to have addressed, such as gun control and subsidized college education, get pushed off the agenda. Older Americans vote, and therefore have disproportionate influence. There’s one way to make sure the views of younger Americans are also reflected in our policy decisions: vote.

Young voters may be less experienced in the nuances of politics and less satisfied with the horse-trading that is part of finding common ground with people of differing viewpoints. But they bring valuable contributions to the political debate. In the past, it was young voters who forced the political system to confront issues ranging from the environment to civil rights to giving 18 year olds the right to vote. If it were not for the courageous young people who stood up to Presidents Johnson and Nixon, the devastating war in Vietnam might have dragged on for many more years. Today, young voters can weigh in on issues like college affordability, LGBTQ rights, and regulation of the Internet. And those who are too young to vote in 2018 can still participate by volunteering in campaigns: walk a precinct, make phone calls, help voters fill out absentee ballots or get to the polls.

It may sound like a cliché to note that in overseas wars and in daily struggles for civil and voting rights here at home, men and women have sacrificed to protect our right to vote. But it is true. Every day, we see democracies around the world weakening; strongmen reducing civil liberties and free speech; nationalism replacing international collaboration. We have even seen our own institutions weaken in recent years. Only the confidence and participation of Americans in our own institutions can protect us from the weakening of our own constitutional system. As Yoni Applebaum argued in The Atlantic, the more distance that exists between citizens and their government, the less invested they become in protecting and preserving the institutions that form our democracy.

Some would have you believe that your vote is insignificant. But in every election, many seats in Congress, state legislatures, even in presidential campaigns are won or lost by just a few votes per precinct. That is why some try to suppress the votes of eligible citizens, and others fight just as hard to ensure that everyone has the right to cast their ballot. As we see every day, elections have real consequences; the time to get engaged and make your views felt (not just heard) is on Election Day.

 

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Rock the Vote: why teenagers matter in elections