By Jessica Weisberg
Published January 8th 2008 in Wiretap Magazine
Barack Obama is on Facebook. "Rudolph Giuliani for President" has a MySpace page. Hillary Clinton went through that phase when she was trying to get YouTube users to select her campaign's theme song. The presidential candidates are trying to "communicate" with young voters, but allegedly the technocentric and apathetic shell of the so-called "quiet generation" is just too hard to crack. Recently though, this pessimistic view disseminated by political pundits has been refuted by the high youth voter turnout in the 2004 elections, the noticeable youth impact in Election 2008 primaries and in a growing universal registration movement.
"It has been propagated for so long that young people are apathetic and that they don't care about politics. But, it's not that there's a lack of interest," explains Adam Fogel, a director at FairVote, a national organization that promotes voting participation. Fogel says the issue at hand is not so much a "participation gap," as a "registration gap." According to FairVote, 81 percentof registered 18- to 25-year-olds voted in the 2004 election. At the time of the elections, only 58 percent of young voters nationwide were registered, as compared to a general registration rate of 72 percent. According to Ari Savitzky (pictured below, right), director of FairVote Rhode Island, "registered young people show up at the polls at nearly the same rate as the general registered population. It's just that young people aren't registered."
Savitzky has been one of the central organizers behind Bill 6215, which would "authorize persons 16 and 17 years of age who preregister to vote to automatically be registered upon reaching age 18." The bill has been passed by the Rhode Island State Assembly two years in a row, but was vetoed both times by Governor Donald Carcieri, who claimed that it would present a greater risk for voter fraud. Savitzky called his response "a red herring" and Fogel remarked, "Rhode Island is a model state when it comes to clean voter rolls." Sixteen-year-olds can already preregister in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Florida recently passed a law allowing all 17-year-olds and any 16-year-old with a driver's license to register to vote.
The logic behind the bill seems simple enough: if registration is one of the most important indicators to determine one's likelihood to vote, it would seem that universal registration would be an obvious first step to broaden political participation. A bill like 6215 would remedy our patchwork registration system; currently, many prospective voters register with the clipboard-bearing emissaries who loiter the streets like pigeons in the months preceding election day.
Fogel stipulates that this system can leave county boards so overburdened that they are unable to process all the last-minute registration forms in time for elections (many of which come from 18-year-olds). Bill 6215 would provide an organized means of ensuring that young voters are registered well in advance. Fogel imagines a system in which "preregistration would happen in every high school at a young enough age that it's still compulsory to be in school" and the mechanics of voting -- how to use a voting machine, how to vote absentee, etc. -- would be taught in social studies classrooms.
Savitzky asserts that being registered makes one more attuned to the political goings-on at both the local and national level. For example, registered voters will be contacted by political campaigns. The bill, Savitzky argues, would create "not just a larger quantity of voters, but a higher quality of voters."
Jeremy Bearer-Friend, lead organizer of Tuition Relief Now, has a different approach to reaching out to young voters; he believes that individuals will only be motivated to vote if there's an issue that speaks to them. His organization promotes a bill -- the College Affordability Act of 2008 (PDF) -- with obvious pertinence to young voters. The proposed law would essentially freeze tuition for undergraduate students in the University of California and California State University systems for the next five years (tuition has risen94 percent in the past decade, while inflation has averaged at 3 percent in the same period of time). He believes that having an issue of such relevance to young people on the ballots will encourage more young voters to register.
"Registration is important, but when it comes down to it, it's an individual's prerogative to decide if they care enough about any of the issues at hand to vote." Furthermore, Tuition Relief Now is getting the word out on college campuses in a number of different ways. Bearer-Friend emphasized that voting isn't the only way of participating in politics, and that voting as "activism" implies a certain sense of complacency with the status quo: "It's a liberal as opposed to revolutionary means of change."
Indeed, there are many ways other than voting to affect political change -- protesting, canvassing, demonstrating, etc. According to a report (PDF) by CIRCLE(the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning an Engagement), the most common way for young people to express their political views is through boycotting, refusing to buy from a store or seller for ethical or political reasons. Tuition Relief Now, which is represented on college campuses across the state, hopes to invigorate young people's sense of political agency by providing a more contemporary example of a university-led movement. "We need something more recent to hang onto than the 1960s," Bearer-Friend said. But youth face other obstacles in their quest for greater political and voting participation.
"As a 17-year-old, the only way for my voice to be heard is through the primary. I don't have any money to donate or any political power," Sarah Martin, a prospective Republican voter, told The Baltimore Sun. This summer, the Maryland Board of Electionsvoted to prohibit 17-year-olds from voting in the primary, despite the fact that 17-year-olds have been able to vote in the primaries for decades. "It should have never come to this," Maryland Republican Party Chairman Jim Pelura said in a statement to the Sun. "The board changed policy that would have disenfranchised up to 50,000 voters and did not tell the public."
This past week, the Board of Elections reversed the decision it made this summer, reinstating the right of 17-year-olds like Martin to vote in the Maryland primary in February. This reversal, according to Fogel, was mainly due to student organizing and youth-led efforts. Now Fogel and others are trying to get as many 17-year-old voters registered in Maryland before the January 22 registration deadline, which doesn't leave them much time.
In Rhode Island, Savitzky says, he's trying to reach out to more potential voters under 18 who would be directly affected by Bill 6215 -- one of his loftier goals is transfiguring our society's treatment of voter registration so that it connotes an anticipated right of passage, similar to that of getting your driver's license.
Since the veto, Savitzky has been focusing on building a bipartisan coalition of organizations and politicians to support the bill in the new legislative year, which begins on January 1. With this momentum and recent attention on the youth vote at Election '08 primaries, it will be hard for national political commentators to argue that this generation is "quiet" -- in fact, it's roaring above the establishment's din.
Jessica Weisberg is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her articles have appeared in many publications, including The Nation, Grist, Gastronomica, and Dollars & Sense Magazine.