Los Angeles Times
Demography vs. Democracy: Young people feel
left out of the political process
By Steven Hill and
November 5, 2002
This election, young people again
will not vote in very great numbers. In the 1998 midterm election,
only 12% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 8.5% of 18- and 19-year-olds
voted. Today will be about the same.
And yet a recent study funded
by Pew Charitable Trusts found that young people were volunteering
in their communities more than ever. Young people are not apathetic,
but most find little connection between volunteering and voting.
While volunteering is viewed as a way to help one's community,
voting doesn't inspire the same sentiments.
Why don't young people
vote? Perhaps because they have a better sense than older people
that our political system is broken. For instance, a recent survey
conducted by Harvard University found that 83.5% of 18- to
24-year-olds said they were not contacted by any political party
during the 2000 election. On the other hand, it is well documented
that both major parties went out of their way to connect with the
Why are candidates going after one group of
voters and relegating others to the political sidelines? One reason
is that seniors vote in greater numbers than young people.
Politicians court likely voters, and that creates a vicious cycle in
which young people don't vote because they aren't courted and they
aren't courted because they don't vote.
Yet a more careful reading
reveals something more broken about our "winner take all" political
system. In close electoral contests -- such as our last presidential
election, or in a handful of races to determine control of the U.S.
House and Senate -- a small minority of voters has much greater
influence than the rest of us. This is the group known as "swing
voters." Swing voters are undecided voters, and in close races they
are the ones politicians court because swing voters decide which
candidate will win.
It just so happens that not only are seniors
more likely to vote than young people, many of them are more likely
to be swing voters than young people. During the presidential
election, the focus was on Medicare, prescription drugs and Social
Security. There were a lot more issues out there and constituencies
that cared about them, yet they were overlooked. Why? Because in
winner-take-all politics, polls and focus groups are used to figure
out which group of voters to talk to and which group of voters to
As one twentysomething said during the last presidential
campaign: "I feel like if you are not 65 years old and don't have
arthritis, these candidates have nothing to say you."
have become a matter of targeting the right demographic using polls
and focus groups. "Demography," says Mario Velasquez, president of
Rock the Vote, which registers young people to vote, "is the death
of democracy. If you have precision demographics, you are only
talking to people who vote, not to the entire country."
people aren't the only ones being left out by precision
demographics. Racial minorities and poor people also usually are
excluded from candidate appeals. The incentives of our
winner-take-all system fragment campaigns, and in the process whole
swaths of people are dropped from the invite list of our "invitation
only" elections. Demographics, it turns out, are destiny.
certainly is needed. Other nations have much higher voter turnout
rates because they use what is known as proportional representation,
which creates multiparty democracy: Voters have more political
choice, there are more competitive elections and more people's
issues are addressed by the various parties and their candidates.
Other necessary changes include instant runoff voting, a national
holiday on election day, same-day voter registration and public
financing of elections. Not surprisingly, nations that employ these
practices enjoy much higher rates of voting that include more young
people, poor people and others left out of our political system.
More than older adults, young people seem to recognize that our
political system is broken. They register their awareness on
election day by not bothering to participate in what to them is a
When you see the low numbers for voter
turnout this time, don't think of it as apathy. Think of it as the
wisdom of youth.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for
Voting and Democracy and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of
America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, 2002). Rashad
Robinson is the field director.