The youth vote in 2012?

In this blog entry, Casey Klofstad,  author of Civic Talkquestions how–and if–young American voters will participate in the 2012 elections.

With the 2012 presidential election in full swing, many are asking whether younger Americans will turn out to vote. What I have learned from interviewing college students over the past decade suggests that most will not.

Don’t get me wrong, college students are very civically engaged these days. For example, when I asked college freshman how important it is for them to be active and interested in politics and current events, 91% said that it was somewhat or very important. However, when I asked them whether political participation is an effective way to solve important problems facing the country, over 70% said that they would rather try to address those issues by volunteering in their community. 

What explains this disconnect between civic-mindedness and political apathy among America’s youth? My research suggests three culprits. First, voting, like most other behaviors, is habitual. Since the voting age is 18, younger citizens have not had enough time to acquire the habit. Second, due to policies enacted by the federal government during the early 1990s, American high schools have service learning requirements. However, to avoid any impression of ideological bias, these programs teach community voluntarism rather than political activism. Third, while service learning requirements offer high school students pre-packaged ways to become civically active, universities and colleges are less likely to make such demands of their students. My research shows that this leads to significant declines in community voluntarism and political participation between the senior year of high school and the first year of college (these declines are slowly made up over the subsequent years of college).

This schism between political and community engagement among America’s youth is a serious problem. We should, of course, celebrate the fact that Americans in their late teens and early twenties are engaged in their communities (e.g. volunteering at a homeless shelter is a noble service). However, it is equally important for them to learn that democracy demands that they also be active in the process of self-governance (e.g. myriad governmental policies have an influence on homelessness).

What might be the solution? Get them in the habit while they are young. Injecting political content into high school service learning programs would be a step in the direction. Universities and colleges should also reach out to their students to reinforce the habit. However, faculty and administrators should be careful to not be too forceful in their approach. On one hand, most of the college students I have spoken to would like more opportunities to become politically active. On the other, most agreed that they do not want these opportunities, as one student told me, “shoved down their throats.”

The upcoming election will be hotly contested, and the outcome is likely to be very close. Nonetheless, while younger Americans are affected by countless government policies, from financial aid to the long-term solvency of Social Security, most of them will not be making it to the polls in November. It is the job of educators, like me, to work to reverse this trend.

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