Since the 1960s the voting demographic of young Americans, defined as ages 18-24, has consistently had the lowest percentage of voting rates, according to research by the Census Department. Even at its peak in 1964, the young voters barely reached above 50 percent participation, while other age demographics peak in the high 60 or low 70 percent. With the midterm elections right around the corner, a main wonder for politicians and their campaign managers is the level of participation to be expected from the young voters, and why it has fluctuated so drastically in the last half century.
Part of the problem stems from the institutional framework of the American voting system. By first allowing citizens to vote at the age of 18, a citizen’s interest in politics and voting remains dormant until they are of age. Once these citizens realize they are part of the decision making process, it takes time to develop opinions on topics as complex as abortion, gay marriage or fiscal responsibility.
“To expect people with absolutely no experience, who have not been socialized to behave in a particular way, to suddenly become this incredibly active, well informed citizen is rather difficult,” said Dr. Salvador Peralta, Chair of the Political Science Department.
The process of socializing citizens politically needs to begin sooner if it is to be expected for 18-year-olds to actively participate in politics. The Georgia Performance Standards require students to take an American Government course in their high school curriculum, however the majority of the high schools opt to reserve the class for 12th grade students. By that time, students are either voting in their first election or only have a year to prepare for the following election, and the class therefore becomes a crash course in all things political.
“What we’re expecting of voters when they turn 18 is the same as expecting a person who cannot read or write to produce a perfectly formatted essay. How can someone who has never been trained to do something suddenly become an expert?” said Peralta.
People assume being well informed means being plugged in to the news 24/7, but with so many different news outlets, how does one decide what to pay attention to? With today’s 24-hour news cycle, citizens tend to focus on national headlines, often forgetting about the happenings in their very own town or region.
“When students come in as freshmen to American government they are extremely uninformed about local politics, more so than national politics, which is paradoxical,” said Peralta.
A simple way to begin the socialization process early is on the local level. Everything is on a smaller scale, making it easier for students around the elementary or middle school level to understand, and citizens can gain more access to local and regional governments. Even for older students, local level governmental affairs should remain a point of interest.
“Students need to begin to learn more about being actively involved in community affairs and learn to ask themselves, what’s going on in my town? Who’s making decisions in my town? How does this affect me, my family and my friends?” said Peralta.