Nationwide, young voters are less likely to vote this year than in 2008. But in Seattle, they’re more engaged than ever before.
SEATTLE — What do a skeleton, Rosie the Riveter and a walking cupcake all have in common?
They were among 400 creatively-costumed young activists trick-or-treating for votes and marriage equality in Seattle over Halloween weekend.
Trick or Vote, an annual “Get Out the Vote” canvassing event put on by Seattle-based non-profit Washington Bus, saw an unprecedented number of dedicated young people taking to the streets this year in their spookiest (or quirkiest) attire — reminding people to turn in their ballots before election day next week and to support Referendum 74.
It was the biggest turnout at an event in Washington Bus history. This is in keeping with an increasing number of young Seattleites taking politics into their own hands this year — especially when it comes to local and state issues — but this runs counter to national trends of youth-voter disengagement.
Washington Bus, unique in its youth-focused approach to political engagement, doubled its number of regular participants in just the past year. Most of these volunteers are under 25 years old.
According to Toby Crittenden, Washington Bus’ executive director, there are now more than 5,000 young people who canvas and phone bank with the Bus on a regular basis, which is ten times more than when it started up in 2007 (and yes, this includes 2008’s “Obamamania“).
The Bus also registered a record number of young voters this year, with the final count coming in at at approximately 13,000. That’s four times as many voters as last year.
But according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, young people nation-wide are actually less politically engaged now than anytime in the past five elections.
This means more young people registered to vote for George W. Bush’s re-election than for Obama’s.
Compared with 2008, people under 30 in the U.S. are 14 percent less engaged in politics and 9 percent less likely to vote in this year’s presidential election. Only half of young people are “definitely” registered to vote this year, according to the study.
And this sharp decline can’t simply be written off as defeatism born in the wake of Obama’s fading “yes we can!” social movement.
The Pew Center reports engagement in Republican voters under 40 declined this year on a level comparable to Democratic voters in the same age group. Romney enjoys 16 percent less support from young Republicans than McCain did four years ago. This is actually a greater decline than the 12 percent drop in voter involvement among those who supported Obama in 2008.
But Washington state is writing its own story.
After going door-to-door for hours in the unrelenting drizzle last Saturday (and with only a small chance of scoring any candy), the mass of teen, co-ed and twenty-something Trick-or-Voters all regrouped to celebrate the awesomeness of political activism.
Something tells me this isn’t what apathy looks like.
Why Washington is different
There could be volumes written about the disenchantment of the former “Obama Generation.”
You know who I’m talking about.
Young Generation Y-ers who came of voting age during the 2008 election, were swept off their feet by promises of radical hope and change, and then were crushed when Obama’s presidential term wasn’t as electrifying as his dramatic run for office.
These young voters followed a number of different paths over the past four years. Some gave up on politics altogether. Some threw their weight behind third-party campaigns promising the same excitement and change Obama did four years ago (hello, “Ron Paul Revolution”).
But a surprising number of them made politics a little more hands-on — with more direct canvassing, phone banking and legislative lobbying than ever before. Well, in Seattle anyway.
And it’s not just limited to the efforts of the folks at Washington Bus. The Associated Students Office of Governmental Relations at the University of Washington (ASUW OGR) registered a record 1500 Husky students to vote in just a two-week drive this fall. There are also more student volunteers with the OGR than ever before.
OGR Director Angie Weiss, 20, says the department expanded in the past two years from a small, lobby-based student coalition to a full-on grassroots organization with a legislative team in Olympia.
She says this transformation was spurred on by a rapid increase in the number of students wanting to participate in the fight against tuition hikes. Thanks to these students’ active participation, the OGR Olympia team succeeded in curtailing proposed increases during last year’s legislative session.
“The stakes get higher every year for college education,” she says. “And students really do care.”
UW Young Democrats President Shelby Woods,19, also says the cost of higher education in Washington public schools is a main reason for student activism. But she says specific social issues on the ballot this year — especially Referendum 74 — are even more important in pushing young people to vote.
“One of the dynamics we’ve seen with Ref 74 is we can get people to be passionate about it who aren’t passionate about politics in general,” she says. “So it’s a different crowd to draw from, and that certainly helps with turnout.”
Woods says she still sees the same energy on campus as she did when volunteering for Obama’s 2008 campaign in high school.
“People were super excited to register to vote when we registered people this year, and there was a huge turnout for our debate-watching parties,” she says. “I think voters at [the[ UW could definitely determine the [state] election.”
UW College Republicans President Kyle Curtis, a sophomore, says state-level social issues will likely generate “phenomenal” voter turnout come November 6.
“I-502 for marijuana legalization is something new, it’s the current fad and it’s never been done before,” he says. “And Ref 74 is of course a social issue a lot of college students are compelled to fight for, with support on both sides.”
Curtis also says the competitive race for state governor between Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna is inspiring a lot of students to get involved, particularly young conservatives.
He says a lot of his conservative peers who don’t agree with Governor Romney’s policies — and consider their vote lost in the “Obamaville” of Washington’s liberal majority — are really excited about the possibility of Washington electing a relatable, moderate Republican governor.
“There’s enthusiasm in the governor’s race. We haven’t had a Republican governor in this state for 32 years,” he says. ”Rob McKenna I think is like Obama in 2008 [for conservatives]. He’s just our shining star right now.”
Both the UW Young Democrats and the UW College Republicans have experienced a dramatic increase in student members over the past several years.
The importance of Generation Y
Toby Crittenden says Referendum 74 is overall the biggest motivating issue for young people this election, and “a pretty unique deal.”
He says there are so many obstacles that keep younger generation voters out of the political process, that when an issue or candidate does manage to “pull them in,” the response is enormous.
“We’re going to look back on this as the year something amazing happened, and that’s what’s creating all this energy,” he says.
Crittenden says structural access is the biggest impediment to youth voter turnout in every election. He says traditional voting apparatuses often disenfranchise young voters who are constantly on the move, changing addresses and phone numbers and who are thus harder to reach. It’s not a matter of young people not caring, but of greater “macro” forces getting in the way.
Alex Miller, Washington Bus Program director, also rejects the idea of youth-voter apathy.
“It too often becomes this narrative of young people being really excited, or really apathetic,” he says. “I think that’s a very overly simplistic narrative.”
Crittenden says it’s imperative to overcome outreach barriers like this as soon as possible, as Millennial voters become an increasingly large percent of the nation’s electorate.
There are already more voters aged 18-25 than voters 65 and older. By 2015, 1 in 3 voters in America will be a member of Generation Y — making it the largest generation in American history. That’s a pretty big role to fill.
What it comes down to is choice. Young people nation-wide can let themselves be excluded from the system. They can choose to buy into hype about apathy, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or they can follow the creative, politically engaged precedent set by Seattle’s youth — throw on a costume, jump on a Bus (or a bus), and make people listen to what they have to say.
For the sake of all our futures, let’s hope they make the right decision.