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On Monday, the Seattle Times ran an article bemoaning the alleged enthusiasm gap that plagues young voters by pointing out that we have fewer new registered voters this year than in 2008. This is an old story in sheep’s clothing that's recycled regularly by newspapers, magazines, and political pundits. Here’s the thing, though: young voters do not have an enthusiasm gap. What we have is an infrastructure gap.
When we see young people registering and voting in lower numbers than older people, we’re seeing the outcome of a political process that hasn’t—in general—figured out how to bring my generation into the mix.
Now, the Bus may look like we’re all fun and games, but underneath our plaid, beardy exterior, we know how these things work. This year, the Washington Bus joined forces with the Washington Student Association and Wash PIRG to run a giant, united young voter registration drive. All told, the Youth Vote Coalition registered the whopping sum of 14,357 young voters.
To give you some perspective, this coalition worked across a dozen campuses, in seven different counties. We registered roughly 17% of the undergraduate student body at Western Washington University, and 12% of the students at Seattle University, not to mention a good chunk of Capitol Hill.
This is a truly amazing number, and it was only possible because of the interest, energy and—yes—enthusiasm of young people in Washington State.
At the Bus, we know that political participation among our peers is not a question of apathy, it’s a question of access. Like every other type of human being, when you engage us, we respond. The X factor is, what sort of infrastructure is out there, doing that engaging?
Because it takes more effort to reach young voters. We young folks move an average of once every three years, so we need to update our voter registration more often. Even when we’re good voters, we don’t show up as “regular” in campaign lingo until we’re out of our mid-20’s. We avoid TV (and hence campaign ads) in favor of Hulu, and we screen calls coming in to our cell phones.
It’s not that we don’t care—in fact, just the opposite. No generation is as affected by the job market, the financial cost of education, or the human cost of war as ours. But in comparison to older voters, we’re harder to track down, and chances are nobody’s going to call us and remind us to get our ballots in.
Imagine if there were as many pieces of civic infrastructure geared towards engaging young people as there are currently oriented towards older folks: a Bus for every AARP; a Student Association for every Municipal League; a PIRG for every Rotary Club.
Imagine if campaigns turned a larger percentage of their millions of dollars of elections work towards young voters, the same way they target older voters.
Imagine if the discussion we were having now was about the very real Infrastructure Gap, rather than the alleged “enthusiasm gap.”
There is a smorgasbord of opportunities for making political participation easier and more accessible. Last year we supported a bill in Olympia that would haveallowed 16 and 17 year olds to pre-register to vote, thereby allowing them to submit their information at the Department of Licensing, and become active voters upon turning 18. We’ll be bringing that bill back in 2013, among others.
Young people are not unicorns. We are not fantastical creatures who exist in myth and legend alone. We’re busy, working two or three jobs, going to school, moving apartments regularly, and negotiating a complicated transitional time in life. We care, and we’re ready to be heard.
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