In the past several weeks election reform laws have been introduced in 31 states including North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Maine and Nebraska. Three main kinds of reform legislation are being floated in these states: elimination of same day registration, elimination of pre-registration, and the creation of mandatory voter ID cards. The enactment of these reforms has long been seen by political scientists as primarily detrimental to turnout among young voters.
All of these efforts are being led by Republicans -- who following the 2010 midterms control the majority of state legislatures around the country -- at the state level. It's no secret that higher youth voter turnout in recent elections has tended to favor Democrats. The 2008 election, which saw 66% of young voters back Barack Obama is a particularly salient example. Young voters propelled Obama to victory, and delivered their third largest youth turnout since the voting age was lowered to 18. Partisan identification aside, after the 2008 election it's hard to deny the power of the youth voting bloc; after high turnouts in 2004, 2006 and 2008, they have secured their place as a meaningful political cohort.
However, there have been periods in the admittedly short history of the youth vote when young voters have not been reliably democratic. The 1980s saw strong youth vote support for Republicans and as recently as 2002, young voters were essentially evenly split in party identification between the Republicans and Democrats. Young voters are by definition at the beginning of their "voting life," and they are more likely than any other age group to change their voting patterns later in their life. So, while it may seem politically convenient in the wake of the Obama youth surge for Republicans to move toward election laws that curb young voters, it would be a mistake for their own political future to alienate young voters in addition to denying the GOP the benefits from a potential future groundswell of young Republican voters.
In supporting a recently defeated bill in New Hampshire that would have prevented college students to vote in their college towns unless their parents had been residents there, William O'Brien, the speaker of the New Hampshire State House, called young voters "foolish" and added that they were not qualified to be voters as they had no "life experience" and that they "just vote their feelings." While this rhetoric may stir up the GOP faithful, it's a quite problematic sweeping generalization. While no one can deny that there are ignorant young voters, it's hard to deny that there are many ignorant older voters. Ignorance and wisdom don't discriminate based on age. If you have a problem with foolish voters, as Mr. O'Brien does, you'd have to find the older ones and prevent them from voting too. How would you figure out who an ignorant or foolish voter was, what criteria would you even use?
Is a foolish voter merely someone who has little life experience? That would seem to be too abstract. I know many young people with rich life experiences and many people over 30 with quite empty life experiences, and vice versa. Does someone earn the right to be foolish just by having lived a certain number of years?
Is a foolish voter someone who doesn't yet pay taxes? This would seem to be a problem in the New Hampshire case, A student who goes to college in Hanover, New Hampshire spends more time in that state than their home every year. Although they don't pay property taxes, all the laws of the state and town apply to them. What's more many students who have off-campus job--jobs that contribute to the local economy--do actually pay income tax. Still, whether or not you pay taxes, doesn't inherently make you more or less informed, even about economic issues, at best it gives you a different perspective. And after all, in a democracy, we should encourage a diverse electorate with different perspectives from different constituencies.
What of the argument made by Thomas Frank in his book What's the Matter With Kansas, that people in Kansas and the surrounding region habitually vote against their own economic interests in favor of social issues like abortion and gay marriage? Are they foolish, even though they believe deeply in their causes?
Who should get to decide what a foolish voter is? And would they be defined? It would undoubtedly have to be lawmakers. In the unlikely event that a group of politicians at the statewide or federal level could come together and agree on a definition for an informed voter versus a foolish voter, how would that be enforced at election sites?
Ignorance is a major issue facing our democracy and it is a bipartisan epidemic. Whether it is an ignorant young voter who votes for Obama because they think he's simply "cool," an ignorant middle-aged voter who voted for McCain because they were convinced Obama was a Muslim, or an ignorant elderly voter who supported Republican congressional candidates because they heard Obama was going to put them before a death panel. This ignorance reaches far beyond voting behavior, it is present throughout our political system. It's not a problem tied to age, nor is it on that can be solved through changing voting laws. The real culprit in political ignorance is our education system, which has failed to educate young people effectively about civics and current affairs. If we want to accomplish this critical mission of creating a better electorate and a more informed electorate, we have to actively work to give young people the tools and background to think about politics critically and how to make informed political decisions.
This most importantly needs to be done in middle and high schools, once you leave high school it's too late to be introduced to basic political participatory concepts. I went to high school in Connecticut where it is a statewide graduation requirement to pass a civics course. This is also the law in a number of states including Michigan and Massachusetts, and scheduled to go into effect in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the next few years. While it's a positive step to have every student in such a class, these classes are usually watered down to the basics of government, memorization of the Bill of Rights, and the like. What we need are enriched civics classes and curricula that ask students to discuss the meaning of citizenship and democracy, the role of voting, the process of elections, and one of the main questions at the center of this debate: what is the criteria for deciding how to vote. Teachers should not tell or encourage students how to vote or tell them what their criteria should be. Rather, teachers should start a discussion, beginning a process that encourages students to develop that on their own. This should be the hardest and most important class every high school student takes.
I will be the first to admit that it's concerning to have an electorate with a large number of ill-informed or uninformed voters, addressing this issue requires a much more long term approach, including better civics education and a national conversation. In 2011, introducing laws that take away voting rights from some would be a backward step in our democracy. Every generation has its fault and vices, but this is a generation with plenty of members who are ready, willing, able and eager to participate in civic life. We shouldn't be denied that chance on the basis that some of us may be foolish.
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