What Happened With Young Voters

11/19/2010 11:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week I participated in a panel discussion in Philadelphia on the 2010 midterm campaign aptly headlined "What the hell just happened?"

As part of the speaking gig, I led a political science seminar on social movements and their viability in and beyond 2010. In class seemingly engaged Haverford and Bryn Mawr collegians all claimed to have voted in the election. But outside of the classroom, over the next few days, a string of students confided in me that they had actually not voted.

I don't know if the voting consensus that emerged in class was canned. Those enrolled in an advanced government class (like the one in which I participated) aren't going to say they didn't vote in front of their teacher: for being an active member of the electorate says something -- a great deal -- about how much you actually care about any political science course.

Despite his inability to make sweeping change, these students said President Barack Obama was on the right track, and that not voting would further diminish their influence on the direction of important public policy.

After the day's events, however, I was the recipient of some pretty candid explanations from confessing non-voters. First, there were logistical realities. One Haverford student from Connecticut said he never received his absentee ballot, even after calling his county election board several times.

Another student said after seeing her fellow Californian's absentee form, she was simply too intimidated by the number of candidates and ballot questions listed. "I can't do this in an educated way," she said admitting that she was not in touch with local issues.

Then, more prevalent, there were philosophical grounds for not voting. An out-of-town New York voter said that, even competing against the Tea Party political tide, Democratic blue would prevail. "The Democrats won, so it doesn't matter," he said.

In the Ardmore Chipotle, another Haverford student and a native of Pennsylvania, rationalized not voting on economic grounds, arguing that his family's financial situation had only worsened since the last election. Another student said that her brother was "far too heart-broken" by Obama to place any confidence in his fellow Democrats.

To young people, there remain pervasive questions about the President's progress in office. "Has he led forcefully enough at the helm? Is he just another Clinton-like transactional and triangulating pol unwilling to risk re-election? Has he left us and our skyrocketing college tuitions and loans behind?"

When I'm not at work in Cambridge, I try to measure the state of our union from a student demographic and its geopolitical constituencies, from suburban Pennsylvania to inner-city Brooklyn.

Ever since the fall of 2007, I've visited college and high school campuses to speak with real students rather than rely exclusively on Gallup surveys or Facebook membership counts. (I edited an online student outlet covering the 2008 presidential campaign and now direct ScoopSeminar, an education and journalism initiative.)

And while my own research and sourcing, in anecdote after anecdote, suggested the desire of young people to become unstoppably entrenched in the political process, they have not -- at least if you follow local or national news or legislated laws.

In mainstream and new media these days, the fact that 18-to-30 year olds were the motivating force behind Obama's election -- or that they are the ones inheriting and most directly affected by current domestic and foreign crises - is mostly out of sight and out of mind.

Young people, and the roughly 2/3 of Millennials who voted for Obama, said this was to be a "change election" centered on reforming America and not dependent upon a figure-head. They pledged to build on the movement's foundation, whether they were happy with the President or not.

In fact, they haven't.