Friday, November 5, 2010

Mock the Vote

On a state and national level, college-aged voters decided to sit this election out.

Like many Maine voters, I am deeply disappointed by the election of Paul LePage as governor. Though most of Southern Maine went for Independent Eliot Cutler, the northern half of the state (including the small, rural towns of Houlton, Lubec, Presque Isle, Milford and my old stomping-grounds, Old Town) swayed the election in favor of the Tea Party Republican.

The election was, in many ways, reminiscent of last year’s state ballot vote on Maine’s gay-marriage bill, which also highlighted the striking differences between the northern and southern part of the state. As with that vote, the victory could have easily gone to progressives, if only more young people had bothered to go to the polls.

Though low youth voter turnout is nothing new or especially surprising during a midterm election, it is, nonetheless, difficult to reconcile in the wake of the record number of young, first-time voters who proved so crucial in Barack Obama’s election just two years ago. Indeed, at the time, much ink was spilled about the Millennial generation’s long overdue political “awakening.” Many reporters likened Obama to this generation’s JFK in terms of his charismatic appeal to young Americans.

Yet, according to a CBS News report, 18-29 year-olds comprised a measly 9% of overall voters in Tuesday’s midterm election. This number is down from 18% in the 2008 presidential election, the report notes.

Of those 18-29 year-olds who did vote, 58% supported Democratic candidates. Here in Maine however, many likely would have gone for Cutler, who drew a strong following of young supporters. Conversely, this age-group could have potentially strengthened Democrat Libby Mitchell’s overall performance, making her a more viable candidate. As it is, Mitchell gained an anemic 20% of the vote and bowed out of the race early in the evening.

According to a pre-election survey conducted by youth-voter-registration group, Rock the Vote, 77% of eligible young voters claimed they “definitely would cast ballots this year.” As DailyKos blogger, Meteor Blades laments, “Too bad that wasn’t the case. If it were, [Wisconsin Democrat and progressive champion] Russ Feingold would have another six-year term ahead of him.”

So what happened? Where were these young voters who were so energized and committed only two years ago? Unfortunately, when confronted about their intermittent and unreliable voting habits, many college-aged Americans fall back on the clich├ęd cop-out, “My one vote doesn’t count.”

“I just don’t feel like I have too much pull with my one vote,” Mallory Pie, a sophomore at Xavier University College told NYU’s student newspaper, Washington Square News. (Huffington Post, Nov. 3, 2010.)

While such a sentiment may have some merit in a national election (largely due to the constraints of the Electoral College), in Maine Cutler and LePage were only separated by one percentage point, or about 10,000 votes. Had Ms. Pie and, say twenty of her friends gone to the polls, collectively their votes could have made a difference. (OK, so I realize my math does not really add up here. In reality, she would need far more than twenty friends, and they all would have had to vote for Cutler. But you get my point.)

There are, of course, many additional factors that likely contributed to the low turnout.

For college students shielded from the current economic recession, the ominous reality of seemingly endless job-searches and rising unemployment rates may seem like distant and far-off obstacles. Additionally, the lack of a military draft all but ensured the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were absent from most election debates. Of course, the fact that so few young people read newspapers or watch news on television regularly does not help matters. Instead, teenagers and college students spend an inordinate amount of time online—nearly eight hours a day according to a recent Kaiser Foundation report.

Finally, and perhaps most disheartening, many of Obama’s young supporters may already feel betrayed by his administration’s failure to bring about any of the progressive changes it promised. Certainly Mitchell had limited appeal amongst young voters, particularly Democrats who felt burned by outgoing Governor John Baldacci’s moderate policies. One liberal co-worker my age recently told me his disgust for Mitchell was so great he would rather see LePage elected governor than cast a vote for her. Looks like he got his wish. (He said he did not like Cutler, either.)

Yet one has to wonder: If today’s young people are still not politically engaged, when will they be? Do twenty-somethings really want the future of their state (or country) decided by a bunch of backward-thinking, semi-retired Baby Boomers, with little more than a high-school diploma to inform their choices? Are ironic, Comedy Central-sponsored pseudo rallies the only form of activism that moves this generation?

For such a privileged, tech-savvy generation that feels the need to announce to the world its every Twitter feed or Facebook update, when it comes to issues of true significance, too many young Americans choose to remain eerily silent.

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