Essays from <state>

Vanessa Long
Putney, VT
Not in school
Born 1981

Essay themes: Campaign finance reform/expenditure limits; mandatory debates; election day registration

It is true that political participation by young people is on a decline. Poll participation and voting registration by our generation is decreasing rapidly, and many young people do not even know who their own senator is, or could tell you where the nearest polling station is. But why is this? Is it due to the unavailability of polling booths and registration centers? Is it due to the fact that people have to take time off from work to vote, forcing the voter to choose her priorities: lose some much-needed paid time in today's fast paced society or vote for a politician or party she might not know much about, or care about? I think the greatest reason that young people are losing interest in the electoral process is that they feel they are becoming more and more alienated from both the political process and the politicians themselves. Therefore, changes in the electoral system should focus on bringing the politicians and their ideas closer to the voter.

To me, and to many people of my generation, the electoral process seems to be not much more than a money game: whoever has the most money generally has a better chance at winning. Because the United States is such a large nation geographically, having the money to utilize advertising systems such as television and radio which can be broadcast nationwide into the homes of virtually every voting citizen is a great advantage to candidates. As a result, people with little political experience and a great deal of income can run for office and often can gain a reasonable percentage of votes. While the fact that the political process is open to anybody in our nation is a great benefit to democracy, it also means that people with less income and with a smaller campaign fundraising program will not get the opportunity to really get their voices heard. This often eliminates minority groups and smaller political parties from the larger campaigns simply because they don't have the funds to immerse the nation in ads. Also, this type of sound-byte advertising doesn't allow the voter to get to know the candidates' stances on issues well, forcing the voter to rely on familiar faces and catch slogans (for example, George Bush's 'Read my lips, no new taxes!') to make 'informed' decisions.

This alienation from the politicians and the observation of scandals such as the Clinton-Lewinsky one has led many people of my generation to develop disdain for politicians and the political process. The language which politicians often use, language that can be designed to hide meaning and to indirectly avoid issues furthers this. Often, this language has the effect of completely confusing the average citizen, not educated to understand complicated political jargon. This results in either frustration with the politician or support based on, again, the catch slogans that a voter can understand. This type of language also prevents voters from really learning about issues which are being discussed, and so even when these issues might be of great relevance to the voters, they still don't know what the politician's stance on the issue might be because they can't understand the technical terminology. The fact, too, that often the only contact voters will get with the candidates is through television commercials and posters means that the voters don't have the opportunity to ask questions to clarify the candidate's opinions on vital subjects. So, when Election Day comes along I believe many voters my age feel that they are being asked to vote for somebody or something they feel little or no connection to, that they can't understand, and that they don't trust. Why take time off from work to vote, in that case?

There are many things that can be done to improve the electoral process to make it more accessible to voters. One of the first things I would do is put a limit on campaign spending. This would help to equalize the publicity of the candidates and hopefully put more emphasis on what they have to say rather than how catchy their advertisements and campaign slogans are. This would also instigate more campaign fundraising events and more travel to different states or areas of the states for candidates, providing valuable opportunities for the voters to meet the candidates, to talk to them, and to learn what they believe in and what their stances on issues are. As a result of more personal contact, voters will be more willing to both understand why a candidate is running for office and what they want to do when they are in office. The incentive to vote is much stronger when you are voting for somebody you feel you know rather than a face you've seen on television a couple of times.

Secondly, I would make debates between candidates mandatory. There is no better way to see how a candidate would comport herself in a parliamentary situation than in a debate, a smaller version of the same. Debates often have the effect of clarifying candidates' stances on issues, through giving audiences the opportunity to ask questions, essential to voter understanding of issues, as well as through discussion between candidates on issues.

Lastly, I would make Election Day a national holiday. For state elections, I would make Election Day a state holiday, and would make voter registration available at the polling booths, so those who haven't had the time to register can do so.
It is not so much a lack of interest as a lack of faith that has caused young people to stop participating in the electoral process. It must be shown to us that our opinions are valued for us to give our opinions, and this must be done on a personal level, not through a grandiose advertising campaign. When we feel that our opinions matter and will be considered by our politicians, we will make our opinions known.