Center for Research on Vermont
Tuesday, April 11, 2000
Bringing Youth Back To The Ballot Box
Deb Markowitz, Secretary Of State
"The death of democracy is not
likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from
apathy, indifference and undernourishment." -Educator Robert Maynard
A quick look at national voter
participation statistics shows that American democracy is in decline. In
Vermont, we have experienced a similar - if less dramatic - decline in
participation. When searching for an explanation for this decline we need
look no further than our youngest citizens. Like many of their elders, fewer
young people vote each year. Nationwide, fewer than one in five, 18 to
24-year-olds bothered to vote in 1998. But voter apathy is just one symptom
of a larger, more dangerous problem. Young people today lack interest, trust
and knowledge about American politics, politicians and public life
generally. Insofar as no democratic institutions can survive without active
citizens, this political apathy bodes poorly for the future for American
What we have learned from past decades is
that we cannot wait until our children are 18 to educate them about the
importance of being an informed and active participant in our democracy, we
must start talking about the value of participating as soon as they can
understand these concept. As New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner
said "The decline in voting and other forms of citizen participation
among young Americans is especially ominous because of what it bodes for the
future . . . If one doesn't learn the lessons of citizenship in the early,
formative years, there is little reason to expect that he or she will be
transformed in mid-life into a model citizen."
We know that our young people recognize
that government can play an important role in making the world a better
place. Herein lies the possibility of democratic renewal. But democratic
renewal will only be possible if parents and leaders in education,
government, politics and the media commit themselves to a new, energetic,
creative strategy for reconnecting American youth to politics and public
As Secretary of State I have no higher
priority than to reinvigorate our democracy. In this regard, there can be no
more important task than to inspire democracy's next generation of citizens
and leaders. To this end, I have devoted a significant amount of my energy
to starting up a project called Kids Voting Vermont. Kids Voting Vermont
provides a comprehensive solution to a complex problem by bringing
classrooms and communities together to teach school children of all ages the
value of their vote. My hope it that Kids Voting Vermont, and other programs
like it will help us ensure that our next generation of Vermonters will be
active participants in our democracy.
National Secretary of State's Association New Millennium
American Youth Attitudes on Politics, Citizenship, Government and
Because of historic lows in voter
turnout, especially among 18-24 year olds, the National Association of
Secretaries of State (NASS) made a $100,000 commitment to study why young
people don't vote. The polling data, the largest survey of its kind in the
last decade, is a part of an on-going effort by our association to help
reconnect young voters to the democratic process. In this study we
identified strategies to reconnect American youths to the democratic
process. The following are some of the results of this
The Problem: The percentage of young
people who vote continues to drop and youth participation in the community
remains distinctly apolitical.
Since 18 year olds were first given the
chance to exercise their right to vote in the 1972 elections, the voter
turnout rate of 18 to 24 year olds has steadily declined. In 1972, 50% of 18
to 24 year olds exercised their right to vote. By the 1996 elections, only
32% of 18 to 24 year olds turned out at the polls. Turnout among this age
group in 1998 is projected to have been below 20%, perhaps the lowest in our
nation's history. Even with changes that have made voter registration
easier, only half (49%) of 18 to 24 year olds were registered to vote in
There is a double-digit gap in voter
turnout between college and non-college educated youth. Forty-one percent of
current college students or those with at least some college education
report voting in November 1998, compared to just 25% of those with a high
school education or less. There is a large gap between political and
non-political engagement. Less than 20% of young Americans voted in 1998 and
just 16% report having volunteered in a political campaign. In contrast, 53%
say they have volunteered in non-political organizations. Our nation is at
risk of losing this generation's participation in democracy.
Youth Concerns, Individualism and
Volunteerism: Young people today are generally apprehensive about their
future and cautious in their dealings with others. They are also decidedly
focused on personal rather than public goals; youth volunteerism rates are
high but these volunteer activities most often take the form of social
service rather than public service.
- 51%)of today's 15 to 24 year olds believe
that America's best years are ahead of us, while fully 39% worry
that our best years may already be behind us.
- 32% generally believe that most people can be
trusted and 65% felt that people should be approached with caution
- When asked their priorities 61% ranked having a
close-knit family among the highest priorities, 60% said gaining
knowledge, education and skills and 50% said becoming successful in a
career (50%). In contrast, only 27% said their priorities include being
a good American who cares about the good of the country, 26% included
being involved in democracy and voting and only 25% said being involved
and helping your community be a better place was a
Although it is true that young people
rate being involved in democracy and the community among their lowest
priorities, this study also supports many other study findings that have
shown youth volunteerism is on the rise. Youth are more likely to report
being involved in their community (up sixteen points), more likely to be
involved in their religious/spiritual beliefs (up eleven points) and even
more focused on family (up 8 points) than were youth a decade ago.
However, this research uncovers new
subtleties about youth volunteer activities; most often these activities
take the form of social service in a one-on-one setting such as soup
kitchens, hospitals, and schools. Our study also suggests that this type of
volunteer work is motivated by a young person's desire to help others in a
Lack of Information and Skills:
Americans have only a limited, vague understanding of what it means to be a
citizen in a democratic society. Young people suffer an information and
skill deficit about politics and the process of voting. Their personalized
and often vague understanding of citizenship deters them from getting
involved in the political process. Parental political engagement is a
critical ingredient in youth political engagement and, as reported later,
many youth are learning not to vote from their parents.
- 46% of those surveyed either never spoke or did
not speak very often to their parents about politics.
- A majority (55%) of the young people agree with
the statement that schools do not do a very good job of giving young
people the information they need to vote. Focus group respondents
reinforced this survey finding, explaining that their high school
courses failed to teach them how to register or how to vote.
- 25% of voting-age survey respondents named not
having enough information about the candidates as being the main reason
why youth do not vote. Youth also lack a clear understanding of the
differences between the two major political parties. As one focus group
participant in Baltimore, Maryland said, "I think [Democrats and
Republicans] are kind of the same. I'm not sure what either of them
necessarily stands for."
- Only 25% of respondents could answer all three
of the following questions correctly: Who is the Vice-President of the
United States; Who is your Governor; What is the length of term for a
member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
America is in danger of becoming a divided nation
of voters and non-voters. Absent the socializing influences of politically
engaged parents, higher education, and other mediating institutions like
churches and synagogues, young Americans may perpetuate the gap between
voting and non-voting classes. America is in danger of developing a
permanent non-voting class. Non-voters are disproportionately non-white,
non-college educated and not in school. They tend not to read newspapers or
to use the Internet. If today's non-voting, non-college youth become
tomorrow's non-voting parents, the cycle of political disengagement
will be perpetuated.
- 40% of young people whose parents vote in every
election report voting in November 1998, while only 20% of those whose
parents vote infrequently or not at all report voting in November 1998.
51% of youth who often discuss politics with their parents voted,
compared to only 26% of youth who rarely or never discuss politics with
- Young people who attend religious services
every week were more likely to report voting in the 1998 elections (43%
report voting) than those who never attend services (25% report voting).
Religious youth are also more likely to talk to their parents about
Government, Politics, and Democracy. In theory,
most American youth believe that government has a legitimate role to play in
people's lives and acknowledge that government has at least some
impact in their
own lives. In reality, they also see few connections between government's problem-solving
role and the concerns they currently face in their
daily lives. American youth are pragmatic about political participation.
Most abstract ideals – such as a sense of civic duty --
pale in comparison to concrete benefits or harm when
young people contemplate reasons for voting. In addition, this
generation has been raised in a time of successive political scandals by
increasingly cynical parents. They have learned to
be skeptical and distrustful of politics and politicians.
- Six in ten survey respondents (60%) think
government should help families achieve the American dream.
- A majority (56%) thinks that government's
impact on their own lives is desirable.
- Seven in ten (72%) think government has at
least some impact on their lives, though only one quarter (24%) say
government has a strong impact.
- Nearly half (48%) acknowledge
government's impact on their lives and classify this impact as
- Civic duty is a motivator for only a small
minority of young voters. When asked why they vote, 28% mentioned
reasons related to obligation or duty.
- 64% agree that "government is run by a few
big interests looking out for themselves, not for the benefit of
- 57% agree that "you can't trust
politicians because most are dishonest." Distrust is slightly
higher among 18 to 24 year old non-voters (64%) than among voters (58%)
in that age bracket.
- 66% agree that, "Our generation has an
important voice but no one seems to hear it."
Strategies and Messages for
Traditional motivations for political
participation and voting are not working well for youth. Except for a small
minority of young people, the sense of civic duty is muted. Strategies and
messages for engagement must include creative and participatory solutions if
any real change is going to occur. Generally, there also needs to be more
effective education to provide youth with the information and skills they
need to become motivated, enlightened, and active citizens.
Schools. Schools have a
profound influence on young people's lives. Civic and political education
should be a high priority in our schools. The research shows that young
people are highly critical of how school government and civics classes are
taught. The respondents do not feel that high schools do a very good job of
teaching students about current events, the democratic process or voting.
Clearly, data from this survey and other statistics on youth knowledge about
civics support this criticism. Our educators should make every effort not
only to encourage students, but also to teach them how to be effective
citizens. Schools should consider providing students with educational
experiences that connect them to the political process. Schools are also a
good location for voter registration.
- 46% say having high schools help students
register to vote would make young people a lot more likely to get
involved in political activities. Moreover, survey respondents chose
high school as the highest response (21%) when asked where they had
registered to vote.
- 36% of the respondents say that making American
government classes more participatory would make young people a lot more
likely to get involved in the community and in political activities.
Parents.Youth who discussed
politics and government with their parents while growing up were more likely
to be registered voters. But, with adults also voting in relatively low
percentages, there is little wonder why youth have failed to be more
politically engaged by their parents. In order for young people to
understand fully the importance of political and civic engagement and
voting, older adults and parents need to be involved.
Furthermore, parents need to talk to
their kids about the importance of voting and the effects voting has on our
society. With youth often narrowly focused on their own, private lives,
parents need to talk to their kids about how candidates, issues, and voting
can and will affect their lives here and now. More than any other source,
parents have the ability to bring civic engagement and voting into the world
of young people.
In order to portray better the importance
of civic engagement and voting, parents should take their children with them
to the voting booth - especially when children are young. This would, at the
very least, familiarize youth with the mechanics of voting. As we have seen
in the study, demonstrating the act of voting is an important part of civic
Politicians and the Parties.
Candidates and government officials have the potential to play a major
role in reconnecting youth to politics and voting. Many of the focus group
respondents complained of candidates ignoring young people. To a significant
degree this is true. In order to win, most campaigns maximize their limited
financial resources. Current voter turnout rates among young people may
discourage campaigns from spending very much money targeting the elusive,
youth voter. If voting among young people is going to increase, then
campaigns need to start targeting youth voters; and based on our research,
young people will respond. Young people want information, but they also want
the candidate him or herself to be the one to present the information to
Media. The media has the
potential to be a very powerful and useful tool in getting young people more
actively involved in the democratic process. Our research suggests that
youth show a sincere interest in wanting to know how to get involved, but
they often do not know where to start. The media could play an integral role
in helping them obtain the information that they need to make decisions
about civic engagement. Yet, young people are unlikely to respond to slogans
or political rhetoric. The messages we tested to motivate youth to vote had
only limited appeal. Clearly this problem cannot be resolved in
thirty-second sound bites or with one pop culture ad. Including youth voices
in politics is the most persuasive way to increase participation and the
media could have a key role in that task.
The media should play an active role in
trying to produce news stories that highlight the relevance of political
issues. News stories should cover what public officials are doing to make a
difference in young people's lives and the impact that political decisions
have on local interests. More positive stories and biographies might be an
effective tool in getting youth more interested in candidates and voting.