Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2004 / 27 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
The youth vote: Why it didn't rock
I am what pollsters call a "likely voter."
I lamented turning 18 a month too late to vote in 1996. I registered to vote as a college freshman in 1997, so I could pull the lever for Christie Whitman in that year's New Jersey gubernatorial race. I registered to vote in New York City as soon as I moved here. I even served six days on a jury this summer as a consequence. And despite lines around the corner in my decidedly "blue" state, I voted.
Pundits, networks and the Democratic Party said this was the year millions of my fellow twentysomethings would join me in line. Forget our history of low turnout this was the Year of the Youth Vote.
Our idealism would change the election.
Democrats took a day to concede the presidency but took even less time to concede this: That supposed horde of twentysomething voters elected not to rock the vote. All turnout rose a bit from 2000. But only about half of all 18- to 29-year-olds actually voted. In 2000, 18- to 29-year-old voters made up 17% of the electorate. In 2004, they made up ...17% of the electorate.
'Celebrities don't matter'
So enough with the youth-vote fetish. Here's hoping that 2004's lackluster turnout will convince the busybodies to stop trotting out such folks as hip-hop artist Sean "P. Diddy" Combs to lure youthful voters to the polls. Celebrities don't matter. Young people, like everyone else, vote when they care and don't when they don't. For the long-term good of the country, that's as noble a civic virtue as obeying a jury summons.
Every four years, we Americans pay homage to clichés about young people's idealism and why we should vote. MTV's Choose or Lose voting project, for instance, partnered with both political parties to sponsor get-out-the-vote essay contests that produced plenty of earnest fare noting that we are the future.
They're partly right. Plenty of young people do shape the future through electoral politics.
Some, like Patrick Rose, a college classmate of mine, enter the political fray. He won a seat in the Texas Legislature in 2002 as a Democrat. Congressman Adam Putnam of Florida, a Republican, joined the U.S. House in 2001 at age 26.
Millions of 18- to 29-year-olds did vote Tuesday because we care enough about taxes, abortion and other issues. We care enough to register and stand in line.
But the youth-vote pushers can dig only so deep into the remaining millions before they hit a Gen-X rock of indifference. Young people like celebrities, but not enough to inconvenience themselves for their sake. Call it the P. Diddy factor.
Sean Combs danced all over the airwaves this fall, hoping his star power would boost turnout.
A concert is just a concert
Four years ago, it was the same story, with different celebrities. At one Ralph Nader rally in Madison Square Garden, thousands of young people flocked to hear Eddie Vedder sing The Times They Are A-Changin'. When Nader got up to speak, though, these "idealistic" young folks streamed for the exits.
Truth is, P. Diddy voters will never hit the polls in droves. If you cared about Social Security, you would have thought about Social Security long before P. Diddy waved his jewelry in your face.
Some read this apathy as a sign that the parties should try harder to reach young people. I don't see how they could. President Bush and Sen. John Kerry spent a year doing little but reaching out to voters and making their positions clear. Young voters who don't feel "reached" by the parties are choosing to be uninformed.
It's time to recognize their resulting apathy as a valid choice. That shouldn't concern us. So there's no untapped well of youth idealism just waiting to improve the country if P. Diddy hands out voter-registration cards. So what?
The idealistic among us already vote. A small percentage of well-informed voters will guide this country better than 100% making patterns with their levers. Millions of other twentysomethings have decided that issues from the economy to gay marriage aren't worth taking a few moments from their lives to contemplate. Maybe they'll change their minds when jobs or families tether them to the system. But if they feel apathetic now, it's hard to believe American civic life loses out from their temporary absence.
The only people who lose out are those young people who don't care to be involved in the electoral process right now but, in a moment of P. Diddy idolization, registered to vote. Many towns compose their jury pools of registered voters. As I learned this summer, getting out of jury duty is a lot tougher than skipping a trip to the polls.
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11/03/04: Online learning: A smart way to nurture gifted kids
02/10/04: Conservatives tune in, drop out after college
08/27/03: Get a life, parents — and let adult child have one, too
07/15/03: System wastes Ph.D. brainpower
03/20/03: Bombs are falling, but don't stop the party
02/22/03: SAT talent searches lead nowhere for many
10/08/02: Young, jobless? Skip law school, visit reality
© 2003, Laura Vanderkam