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Demography vs. Democracy

Young people feel left out of the political process.

November 05, 2002|Steven Hill and Rashad Robinson | Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, 2002). Rashad Robinson is the center's field director. Web site:

This election, young people again will not vote in very great numbers. In the 1998 midterm election, only 12% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 8.5% of 18- and 19-year-olds voted. Today will be about the same.

And yet a recent study funded by Pew Charitable Trusts found that young people were volunteering in their communities more than ever. Young people are not apathetic, but most find little connection between volunteering and voting. While volunteering is viewed as a way to help one's community, voting doesn't inspire the same sentiments.

Why don't young people vote? Perhaps because they have a better sense than older people that our political system is broken. For instance, a recent survey conducted by Harvard University found that 83.5% of 18- to 24-year-olds said they were not contacted by any political party during the 2000 election. On the other hand, it is well documented that both major parties went out of their way to connect with the 65-and-over population.

Why are candidates going after one group of voters and relegating others to the political sidelines? One reason is that seniors vote in greater numbers than young people. Politicians court likely voters, and that creates a vicious cycle in which young people don't vote because they aren't courted and they aren't courted because they don't vote.

Yet a more careful reading reveals something more broken about our "winner take all" political system. In close electoral contests -- such as our last presidential election, or in a handful of races to determine control of the U.S. House and Senate -- a small minority of voters has much greater influence than the rest of us. This is the group known as "swing voters." Swing voters are undecided voters, and in close races they are the ones politicians court because swing voters decide which candidate will win.

It just so happens that not only are seniors more likely to vote than young people, many of them are more likely to be swing voters than young people. During the presidential election, the focus was on Medicare, prescription drugs and Social Security. There were a lot more issues out there and constituencies that cared about them, yet they were overlooked. Why? Because in winner-take-all politics, polls and focus groups are used to figure out which group of voters to talk to and which group of voters to ignore.

As one twentysomething said during the last presidential campaign: "I feel like if you are not 65 years old and don't have arthritis, these candidates have nothing to say you."

Campaigns have become a matter of targeting the right demographic using polls and focus groups. "Demography," says Mario Velasquez, president of Rock the Vote, which registers young people to vote, "is the death of democracy. If you have precision demographics, you are only talking to people who vote, not to the entire country."

Young people aren't the only ones being left out by precision demographics. Racial minorities and poor people also usually are excluded from candidate appeals. The incentives of our winner-take-all system fragment campaigns, and in the process whole swaths of people are dropped from the invite list of our "invitation only" elections. Demographics, it turns out, are destiny.

Change certainly is needed. Other nations have much higher voter turnout rates because they use what is known as proportional representation, which creates multiparty democracy: Voters have more political choice, there are more competitive elections and more people's issues are addressed by the various parties and their candidates.

Other necessary changes include instant runoff voting, a national holiday on election day, same-day voter registration and public financing of elections. Not surprisingly, nations that employ these practices enjoy much higher rates of voting that include more young people, poor people and others left out of our political system.

More than older adults, young people seem to recognize that our political system is broken. They register their awareness on election day by not bothering to participate in what to them is a meaningless exercise.

When you see the low numbers for voter turnout this time, don't think of it as apathy. Think of it as the wisdom of youth.

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