How do you capture that elusive “youth vote”? In the first presidential election since Barack Obama’s campaign showed it was possible to effectively leverage young voter engagement, the question still remains of how to keep 18-29 year olds engaged in the political process.
SEATTLE — “Politics,” Alex Miller says, “is inherently uncool.”
As we sit in the urban loft headquarters of the Washington Bus, a youth-driven political advocacy organization, it sure seems like they’ve found something cool about the creaky old voting process. Maybe it’s the “Vote Bot” Robot or the foosball table.
But the Bus’s Communications Director is serious.
“It just can’t be cool,” he reiterates. “And that’s fine — it’s still super valuable. What you can do is find things that are cool and meaningful to young people, and you can figure out what’s political about them.”
The question that seems to arise every presidential election year — how do you get out the youth vote? — is once again in the local and national conversation in 2012. While the 2008 Presidential season saw a surge in youth participation as a result of the Obama campaign’s outreach and leverage of social media to reach younger voters, a recent poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics showed that only 49% of Americans age 18-29 will “definitely” vote in November. Only 22% of U.S. college students self-identify as politically active.
The majority of young voters are like Curtis Rusch, a freshman at the University of Washington. He registered to vote soon after his 18th birthday, eager for the opportunity to vote in the 2012 presidential election. But off-year elections and smaller races or initiatives are not on his radar, or that of his friends.
“I just feel like it doesn’t make that much of a difference,” he says. “Some of those issues seem really small to us since they’re not affecting us every day, so it doesn’t pique our interest as much.”
Alan Charnley, a 26-year-old from the 32nd district, sees that tension often in the students at Shoreline Community College that he approaches, clipboard in hand, to strike up conversation — and eventually ask them if they’re registered to vote.
The one-time summer camp counselor admits he’ll Facebook sneak-attack his former campers when they turn 18: “I’ll write, ‘Congratulations, Happy Birthday! Now go register to vote’.”
Here in Washington State, 18-24 year olds made up 12.64% of the population in 2010, but made up only 9% of total registered voters (see graphic).
So what is the trick to capturing that elusive youth vote?
Miller and the team at the Washington Bus firmly believe that apathy isn’t the main obstacle, though that tends to be the explanation in national media — that kids these days just don’t care.
“I have a tough time swallowing that, and from our experience we’ve found that really not to be true,” Miller says. “I think young people would say that there are things they really care about, but that some of the processes and actual systems, the way they work, it’s really hard to access.”
One observation the Bus has noted is that the main reason youth voters don’t vote, even if registered, is that they’re afraid they’ll make a mistake. As a result, the Bus continually focuses on education to make political processes more understandable.
The Bus also works on ways to ease the voter registration process, including pushing a bill that would allow pre-registration for those under 18 when they get their driver’s license at the DMV. It passed the House and made it to the Senate this April, but didn’t pass before the legislative session ran out during the budget debate. Still, the Bus is optimistic it will pass in 2013.
For his part, Charnley suggests giving 15 or 16 year olds the right to vote in school board or city council races, which would give them the opportunity to see how their participation has a direct effect.
“I want to get more of my generation involved,” Charnley says, “because I believe decisions are made by those who show up.”