Young citizens of voting age need to understand their rights and responsibilities in this democracy thing, and I’m always happy to give them a little shove in the right direction.
So I was happy to agree to lead a discussion last Thursday at the Bakersfield College library of the state and local ballot measures coming before voters in this fall’s election. The secondary purpose of the event was to get students registered to vote.
Sadly, the audience was a little on the meager side. It consisted of four librarians, two students, a reporter for the Renegade Rip campus newspaper and an older, bewhiskered gentleman who’d somehow caught wind of the event. The information shared was helpful, the conversation engaging, but I couldn’t help be a little saddened by the size of the audience.
The 18-to-29 age group is the cohort least likely to vote and the age bracket most likely to be affected by the economic, social and environmental issues that the rest of the country will be deciding for them.
Setting aside the very real possibility that the student body found my advertised presence on campus utterly underwhelming, this might have been that long-observed apathy in action. Or inaction, as the case might be.
What can we do about this? For starters, follow the lead of Laura Luiz, a librarian at BC's Grace Van Dyke Bird Library and the organizer of Thursday's student registration event. (In the interest of full disclosure, she is also the wife of my colleague, reporter Joseph Luiz.) The Bakersfield College event, which seems to have been well-advertised, may have fallen short of expectations, but it was exactly the type of effort we need to make. (But, Laura, next time: tacos.)
Things may be a little better than I have portrayed them, though. Throughout this early fall, news sites have been reporting an accelerated pace of new voter registrations among under-30s, although not every pollster is so optimistic.
The aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, with all of the overheated rhetoric on both sides of the gun argument, is one likely motivation to participate. But mass shootings are, absurdly, nothing new, and in 2014, in the last midterm election, turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds was 19.9 percent. That's the lowest ever recorded, according to census and election data.
The proportion of young Americans who said they were registered to vote (46.7 percent) was the lowest in 40 years.
Will our increasing polarization — as bad as I've experienced in my lifetime — make that youngest voting bloc more willing to make the effort, or less?
Compare this apathy to the 1960s when — celebrate that era or condemn it — 18-year-olds, at the time deprived of the right to vote and angered by the Vietnam War, were considerably more engaged. Today, there is no military draft and no single, unifying (or divisive) war consuming our national conversation. What are the issues that might drive young people to the polls today?
I don't think it's a coincidence that civics education has been on the decline for decades. As Alia Wong reported this week in The Atlantic, students in the 1960s took three civics classes over the course of their four years of high school. Then schools began to de-emphasize civics in favor of other courses and pursuits.
How bad is it now?
A newly released survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and cited in The Atlantic, offers sobering evidence that it's pretty bad: Just 1 in 3 Americans would pass the U.S. citizenship test. It’s a reasonably challenging test, but a substantial majority of the immigrants who want to become Americans pass it with ease. Perhaps fewer of them can identify Kim Kardashian's shoe size than the typical, homegrown American, but most will know how many representatives serve in Congress.
Just nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of government or civics classes in high school. Only two states have civics education requirements for middle schoolers.
Is there a connection? Most of us, I'm sure, would say yes.
Can we turn it around?
A recent Gallup poll shows that just 26 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say they plan to vote in the November midterms, compared with 82 percent of Americans 65 and over.
So it might be a long road. And the road might not end where many of us would like to see it end. But we have to try.
Keep up the good work, Laura. You've got the right idea.