Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Rep. Barbara Lee Headshot

Young Voters and the New Face of Politics

Posted: Updated:

We're only a few weeks into the presidential nominating season, and already it's clear that something special is happening.

We first saw it in both Iowa and New Hampshire, where extremely high turnout led to record numbers of voters participating in the Democratic nominating contests. This is great news for our country, and represents an exciting development on an issue that is close to my heart: engaging new voters in the political process.

I have endorsed Senator Barack Obama, because I know that bringing about the positive change we need in this young century demands activism and energy from America's young people. Senator Obama has built a movement by exciting young people and harnessing their political power like no other presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy. He has proven that if you reach out to young people and speak to their issues, they will vote.

In Iowa, young voters blew away the records for previous caucus participation. According to the respected Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), in 2000, 3% of voters 17-29 participated in the Iowa caucuses; in 2004, that number rose slightly to 4%. This year? The youth turnout rate skyrocketed to 13%, a tripling of participation that represented over 65,000 young voters who came out for the caucuses. And well over half of them caucused for Senator Obama, leading him to victory in Iowa.

Senator Obama once again carried the youth vote in New Hampshire, where total youth turnout hit a record 43%. Over 50,000 voters under the age of 29 turned out for the Democratic primary alone -- a major increase over the 30,770 who participated just 4 years ago. He captured nearly 3 in 5 young voters in Nevada as well, where more than 15,000 young people age 18-29 participated and over a third of all caucus-goers were traditionally-underrepresented minorities. In both of these states, Senator Clinton also showed that reaching out to young people must be part of a winning campaign strategy.

South Carolina stunned everyone on Saturday. Over half of the participants in that primary were African-American, and young voters turned out in record numbers: nearly one in five 18-29 year-olds participated. Two-thirds of these young South Carolinians cast their ballot for Senator Obama, who once again demonstrated his diverse base of support by capturing a majority of young African Americans, and a majority of young whites.

Mike Connery at Future Majority put it best: the "youth vote" is no longer the "icing on the cake"... it is the cake. The initial nomination contests have shown both candidates and the media alike that a permanent shift is underway in how young adults engage in the political process, and I am thrilled about the implications of this development. With young Democrats outnumbering young Republicans in all four of the competitive contests thus far, the recent surge in political participation by our nation's young people is exciting news for progressives. Even more heartening to me, these young voters are defying traditional lines of race and gender and uniting behind Barack Obama, a candidate they know will deliver the 21st Century change that has so far eluded their generation.

Engaging new voters in the political process is an important issue to me, because while every voice in America deserves a hearing in Washington, all too often it is moneyed and established interests who drive the conversation. Marginalized voices can't afford high-priced lobbyists to press lawmakers on issues that are important to their communities, but they possess one irreplaceable resource that can't simply be purchased by the highest bidder: the ability to vote.

It is important for young people to understand that they have a voice in this government, and one of the first steps in speaking up in this conversation is to vote. We want young people to have hope -- and to use their votes to elect politicians who will be accountable to them. The only way this will happen is through engagement with the political process, because if you're not at the table, your voice is not being heard.

I founded One Voice PAC in large part to increase participation in the political process by individuals and groups who have traditionally been marginalized, in particular young people, communities of color, and low-income voters. The face of America in politics must change -- and with the results we've seen in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina so far, it's clear that it is changing, a development that bodes well for our great country.