The Half-Impressive Youth Vote

Half of young people are nonvoters, an embarrassing fact for one of the only true democracies in the world.

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Supporters hold up a sign as they wait for first lady Michelle Obama to speak during a campaign rally at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Nov. 3, 2012.

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The same group is also disproportionately left out of other aspects of civic life. They are less likely to belong to all kinds of voluntary groups, to follow the news, and to volunteer. They even join labor unions at lower rates than their college-educated peers. The whole infrastructure of churches, grassroots political parties, local newspapers, and unions that once introduced working-class young people to politics is now shattered. And the sophisticated turnout operations of modern presidential campaigns focus on likely voters, meaning that college campuses get lots of attention but no one reaches young people who work in retail, service industries, and manufacturing. The hyper-efficient Obama campaign contacted just 5.8 percent of youth without college experience.

For the good of democracy, we must find ways to reengage working class young Americans. Civic education in schools would help. As we found in a study for the S.D. Bechtel, Jr., Foundation this year, civics is an afterthought in almost all states today. Also, some national and community service programs, like YouthBuild USA, give young people work experiences and job skills while teaching them about citizenship. They have excellent outcomes and deserve much more support.

Young voters are back. They turn out in good years and bad and make the difference in close elections. But half of our young people are still nonvoters, and their detachment from politics reflects their general alienation from civic life. We can't be satisfied until we reengage them.

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