01/17/2008 02:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

More Than a One Night Stand: Millennials Building a Meaningful Relationship with Democracy

After young people turned out in record numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, you would think that those who regularly trash Millennials, Generation Y and others in our 20s and 30s would stop scapegoating young voters for our alleged apathy towards democratic participation.

Apparently not.

Although nearly 37 percent of 18-to-29 year olds cast a ballot in the New Hampshire primary (more than double the percentage from four years ago and a larger percentage of the total vote than those 60 and older), the naysayers soon labeled this show of electoral force a "fluke."

The return to thoughtless disparaging hit a new low on the pages of the Huffington Post when it was suggested that young voters would rather be drunk than democratic, despite the fact that the trend since 2002 has been significant increases in youth voting.

While it may be easy to take a potshot at young voters by saying they'd rather party on Mardi Gras than vote -- Fat Tuesday is the same night as Super Tuesday -- the humor of such a jab is likely lost on the large percentage of young people who are deeply involved in public service.

We may not engage in politics in the same way as our parents and grandparents. You may not find us at meetings or marches, but young people are busy making a difference in the ways we know how -- by giving back in our communities, seeking tangible solutions, and responding to those who recognize these efforts.

To be sure, voting matters to younger generations, but we are also interested in making politics more than just a one night stand. We are looking for a meaningful, long-term relationship with democracy that bridges our year-round work in the community with whom vote for on Election Day.

We know that 18-to-29 year olds are as, or more, engaged in community service and civic participation than their generational forebears. Consider:

* In 2006, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that four in 10 people ages 15 to 25 had volunteered in the previous year.
* A 2006 Harvard Youth Survey on Politics and Public Service found that in 2005, 51 percent of all 18- to 24-year olds volunteered for community service. Fifty-eight percent of those had done so at least once a month, and 19 percent of them had participated in "a government, political, or issues-related organization."

It is true that other studies, like that done by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, show that a large number of younger voters are turned off by electoral politics because they believe many candidates are disingenuous and simply spin their words to accumulate votes.

But people who criticize youth for not participating are missing the point: young people aren't the problem -- traditional politics is the problem. Rather than dismissing young voters while courting less reliable age groups, candidates, consultants, and pundits should tune in to what's happening on the ground, in social networks, in our communities, and, yes, at polling places.

As a study by Rock the Vote showed, young voters made the difference in races where campaigns ran youth outreach efforts. For example, in Montana, Sen. Jon Tester won by 3,562 votes, while the turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds was up by 39,106 votes over 2002 levels, more than 10 times the margin of victory. The same was true in races in red and blue states from Virginia to Missouri to Connecticut.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards actively engaged younger voters in genuine, non-condescending ways. And young voters responded with record-setting numbers at the polls.

And the current crop of candidates shouldn't get all the credit, either. Organizations like Rock the Vote, Young Voter PAC, and the Young Democrats have spent years organizing young voters in new ways and encouraging candidates to talk about issues that matter to young people.

Young voters are not a "fluke." Our long-standing commitment to service -- and the steady increase in voting rates -- bodes well for those candidates who recognize what motivates us, who reach out to us with tangible solutions for the problems that we see in our communities and around the globe, and who confront the questions and convince us that our vote matters as much as our days of community service.

For those candidates, we will choose Super Tuesday over Fat Tuesday every time.

Jason Carter is the co-founder of the Democratic community service organization, Democrats Work, and serves on its board of directors. He is a Peace Corps alumnus and the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.