Tomorrow my 18-year-old son Jesse will be one of the millions of young people to cast his first vote for president. As a political junkie and a parent I couldn't be more thrilled. This one of those milestones you look forward to when you wonder why you braved 30 hours of labor.
My son is excited about voting, too. Like many of his peers he's been avidly watching The Daily Show to keep informed, trading political barbs on Facebook, and closely monitoring political spoofs on YouTube.
Who said the electoral college can't be a hoot?
Still, when it comes to important matters of state, like electing the first African-American president, my son can be a bit of a procrastinator. So a few weeks ago, being the exceptional hands-off parent that I am, I drove to our neighborhood post office in LA to pick him up a voter registration form. At 44 million eligible voters strong and a legacy of activism, the Millennial Generation could shape the outcome of the election. So I grabbed a few extra forms for his friends.
Which turned out to be a prescient thing. By the time I got home my son had pulled into the driveway with his friend Robert. "Oh, good," I said, climbing out of my car. "I picked up some voter registration forms for you."
After handing one to my son I thrust one at Robert, who was furiously texting on his Treo. When I gave him the form he smiled and thanked me, but then he said something truly stunning. "I'm probably not going to vote."
As someone who has voted in every presidential election since 1972, and frequently for the losing candidate, I was aghast. Not vote? Was he kidding? Wasn't he part of the highly touted youth vote, the generation who believe they can change the country with a galvanizing combination of Web savvy, grassroots organizing and optimism?
And what about the historic candidacy of Barack Obama?
Robert explained that the reason he might not vote was because he didn't think it mattered. I countered with a long breathless speech about the economy, the war in Iraq, global warming, how millions of Americans don't have health care. I hammered him about rising tuition, the credit crunch, how middle-class parents were struggling to send their children to college. The Millennial Generation was going to suffer the brunt of these problems. Wasn't it in his interest to vote? His civic duty? What if other people his age sat out the election?
I must have hit a chord, or worn him out, because Robert said he had changed his mind.
And yet the youth vote, as pundits have been fond of pointing out these last few anxious days, has been notoriously fickle. Whether they actually influence what happens tomorrow will depend not only on how many of them are determined to trek to the polls, but their tolerance for frustration. This weekend some voters in North Carolina stood in line for eight hours. Other voters are encountering dirty tricks, like the official-looking flyers in Pennsylvania that claimed Democrats vote on Wednesday. There's also fear about ballots and machine shortages. "Can Florida avoid election chaos?" fretted one headline I saw this morning.
Rock the Vote is giddily predicting young people will turn out for Obama. But some of those voters are firmly in Camp McCain. In fact, support among 18- to 29-year-olds helped the Republican candidate clinch the primary in California. A reality that recently hit home.
At a dinner to celebrate my daughter's 16th birthday, one of my son's friends not only stated his belief that Obama was a Muslim, but that his health-care plan would lead to socialized medicine. Oh, and he'd also destroy small businesses by raising taxes. Never mind my son's response; I thought my daughter, an outspoken Obama supporter, was going to choke on her tuna roll. Where had his friend heard these facts? From his father, a conservative doctor who came from a poor, immigrant family.
Without criticizing the dad, my husband calmly laid out Obama's positions. As veteran voters, we've been doing that a lot this election season, talking with young people we know about the candidates and issues, trying to steer them to reliable news sources (like the "elite liberal media"), urging the importance of making their voices heard. Maybe they listened, maybe they didn't.
But at least I know one 18-year-old who'll be joining me to vote on Nov. 4.