October 29th, 2008
03:33 PM ET

Moving beyond expectations - The myth of young voter apathy

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/29/art.youth.onecampaign.jpg
caption="Charlie Harris, a Western Kentucky University student, talks to Courtney Yates as the One.Org bus makes a stop at Western Kentucky University as part of its cross-country trip encouraging students and others to vote."]Rob Grabow
Author, “Voting with Our Pants Down”

With the election only six days away and 44 million 18- to 29-year-olds comprising a critical voting bloc with tremendous electoral power, many people still perceive – misperceive – that young voters are apathetic, self-absorbed hedonists who can't be counted on to vote. Recently I had an amiable but illuminating conversation with a Philadelphia Daily News writer, who echoed some of these charges. He said, "I'll believe there's a youth vote when I see it." Such sentiment is hardly a novelty. In 2004, famed author Tom Wolfe suggested in one national interview that only 6-9 percent of college students were truly politically or civically engaged. His charge went largely unchallenged.

In a way, that silence says more than Wolfe's words, since it indicates the media's role in reinforcing the misperception. Relative to the size of our voting constituency, we're disproportionately underrepresented in the national debate. It's wrong just to say we lack experience, ambition, or work ethic, as is sometimes claimed. More critically, because of the same unchallenged impression in the media, we often lack opportunity and access.

I believe that what's most disheartening is that when we are talked about, when questions of demographic identity arise, who comes on to answer them. For the most part it isn't us. Young voters are not included in the conversation; instead we are generally talked to, talked about, and told who we are.

We all know that if a falsity is repeated often enough, it can take on a life of its own; it becomes true in the public's mind. The negative caricatures of today's young voters have persevered and become cliché. But are they true? With the election looming, this is a critical question. So are they?

No! Certainly not entirely so.

As part of a more complex answer to the apathy charge, consider an article by a then 21 one-year-old College of Alameda student, Mohammad Sharifi. Mohammad's cousin was killed fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. In this article, Mohammad described his aunt's reaction to losing her young son: "He's gone, dear God, my baby's gone, he's gone..." Mohammad described his anguish as he sat on his lawn grasping his aunt for half an hour. Mohammad's cousin, who was Mohammad's age, was passionate and convinced that his choice was right when he gave his life for the United States. Is this apathy? Consider asking Mohammad, Mohammad's aunt, or their friends, relatives, and community members their opinion sometime.

It's only one example, but stories like Mohammad's abound unseen out of the camera's eye, often in critical swing states, and they frame the narrative of young voters in America this year. Like so many of my peers, I've seen, read about, and lived similar stories. There is no apathy in them. The misperception is a gap between the caricature and reality.

In the minds of many, there is a subconscious, false assumption on the question of apathy. It runs like this: if you don't vote, then you're apathetic. In the context of young voters, this one misses the mark for two good reasons.

First, the claim that young people don't vote is overstated. In 2004, over 50 percent of us did. And while our turnout percentage was lower that year than those voters over 65, nearly 21 million under-thirty voters made it to the polls compared to just over 22 million voters over 65.

This year there's good preliminary evidence to indicate our turnout will be much higher than ‘04. It's not just the accounts of record-high registration. We've already voted. Take Iowa. Three times more young voters caucused in there in 2008 than in 2004. Young voter primary turnout in New Hampshire was up 271 percent, and on Super Tuesday, almost three-million young voters made it to the polls, significantly more than that same Tuesday in 2004. To claim universally that we don't vote is not only unfair, it's out of touch with reality.

Just as importantly, though, as I argued in my latest book, past voting is actually not a great metric for political- and civic- mindedness, especially for this generation of young voters. Political or civic engagement are bigger than that.

Consider that the young voter is the largest volunteering demographic group in the country's history, with nearly 70 percent of us volunteering on a regular or semi-regular basis. In addition, we are the largest constituency in our armed services, comprising over half the deaths in Iraq an Afghanistan. 79 percent of us consider ourselves spiritual or religious, 56 percent of us have passports and use them to study abroad or observe foreign cultures first hand, one-third has decided that getting a college education is important enough to take on absurd amounts of debt in order to subsist on Easy Mac for four years, and a plurality of us are working our butts off in the public and private sector. On top of the voting indicators above, a hefty plurality of us who haven't voted regularly participate in these civically-focused activities.

So much for apathy. Obviously equating voting and caring misses a very big boat. It diminishes the humanity of those young people who do not vote for a myriad of reasons besides apathy, and it unfairly dismisses the millions of us who turn out.

With six days left, take a look at this election with wiser eyes. Without young voters, Obama would have lost Iowa, and without Iowa he probably wouldn't be the electoral favorite today. Remember that when labeling young voters, and if the trend holds, remember it again in January.

One last story to plant in your hippocampus for the next time you hear this apathy canard. Kelly and Kelly's good friend, both eighteen-year-olds voting in the Washington State primary, woke up at four in the morning on a Saturday to drive two hours from Olympia, Washington to Seattle. For what? A political rally. Yes, a political rally. Once they arrived, they yawned wide, high-fived, and donned matching, "Obama Rocks My Face Off" tee shirts."

This story probably exists for both party preferences and speaks to who young voters are more than it reflects on either of the presidential nominees.

If candidates deserve a fresh pair of eyes every election, the electorate filling in the checkboxes, especially those doing so for the first time, must deserve the same.

Filed under: 2008 Election • Raw Politics • Rob Grabow • youth vote
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. GF, Los Angeles

    Let's just say the Presidential race is no American Idol so the vast majority of youth will not care to vote. It's a simple fact considering how many millions of those youthful voters vote every season of American Idol there isn't that representation during elections. There are a few that do vote but for the most part unless this country had a draft for Iraq that would directly affect a lot of people- most don't care.

    October 29, 2008 at 7:16 pm |
  2. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    I have said all along that the youth vote will be the clincher in this election..........that, and the Hispanic vote. Both equally. Joe the six-pack will be drunk on Nov 4th. He will not be a big vote in this election. I have never seen young people so energized about an election..........Never..............

    October 29, 2008 at 7:06 pm |
  3. Mary V., Salt Lake City, UT

    Perhaps its wishful thinking that the college crowd will vote, this time. However, I believe they WILL. There is a lot of excitement in our youth, to have an articulate, inspiring president.

    The younger generation is just as weary as we, 50-somethings are of the politics of hate-lies-fear-and division! This is what the Republicans just do not get nor see! We are so tired of the anti-American, real-America, true-patriots, blah.....blah.......blah.

    Those of us, young, old, white, black, hispanics, asians, who support Sen. Obama do so in part because we are SO sick of the VILE politics of the Republicans!

    Its hard to believe that the Republican leadership is Christian! Their vile campaign against a fellow American has been .........evil.

    October 29, 2008 at 5:56 pm |
  4. GAIL Centre,Al;

    I hope Obama is betting on the young vote. Like all the young people I know, don't give a rip about voting. If they have something to do nov.4 they won't even think about voting. Oh, wait if they don't show up, he's always got ACORN, to back them up.

    Acorn had a good teacher, OBAMA


    October 29, 2008 at 4:47 pm |
  5. Heather, Washington

    Good article. You’re right in stating that young voters are far from apathetic, but I think you carefully side stepped one of the causes of this perceived apathy: the older age demographic. This demographic doesn't want a politically engaged young vote, frankly they are probably all too aware of the change that we could effect if we voted in large proportions, and in an effort to discourage us, instead label us as apathetic and ineffective. Come on older voters – what are you so afraid of? National health care? Marriage rights? Freedom of choice? Time to stop stereotyping and discouraging us and welcome us to the polls. Unless you can actually look at 2004's 21 million and consider it poor and unengaged, then I suggest that you call it was it is and don't make it what it isn't; we are engaged young people, and we are far from apathetic citizens.

    October 29, 2008 at 4:35 pm |
  6. Sharon Kitchen

    go youth!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    October 29, 2008 at 4:21 pm |
  7. Kris

    I am having a hard time understanding how the "Christian" Mom of Sarah Palin can stand up in front of hundreds of people and continue to repeat the "lies" against Barack Obama.

    Also, how can she continue to tote her kids along, why aren't they in school where they should be if education is so important to her.

    I have listened to John McCain and he shows his age by constantly repeating the same sentence a couple of times within a 5 minute span. We need a young President.

    October 29, 2008 at 4:19 pm |
  8. Cindy

    You can't just throw away the young voters past habits. The truth is that they have always been the ones that go out and volunteer for these campaigns, registered to vote and then when it came down to voting they never did.

    And as far as the percentage going up who voted in 2004 well the percentage of every group across the board was way up. So the young vote wasn't the only one that went up.

    I am sure with this election the numbers will be up in every age group again so that really still wouldn't make the young vote the one that wins this election.


    October 29, 2008 at 4:16 pm |
  9. Dee Stevens

    In 1971 eighteen year olds were given the right to vote, now these voters are baby boomers who will be voting in the 2008 Presidential election.

    October 29, 2008 at 4:16 pm |
  10. Brian Campbell

    The voting age should probably be raised to 21.

    October 29, 2008 at 4:14 pm |