Teaching the 2016 Election: Youth Participation in Elections, Part III

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

We conclude this three-part series on youth participation in elections by revisiting the second part of a quote from former Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.

“They don’t vote because very often they’re lazy, and they’re too busy playing with their little machines… They’re just too in tune with texting and not in tune with what’s going on around them.”

Having refuted the laziness claim, we turn next to “their little machines.”

It’s true, young people are almost universally using social media sites, but so are growing numbers of older generational cohorts.

Among all American adults, Percentage who use social networking sites, by age

And much of what transpires on social media is “friendship-driven” engagement, with few direct implications for democracy. Yet friendship-driven engagement has the potential of building “bridging” social capital, a foundation for civic engagement.

Moreover, a majority of social media users also engage in “interest-driven” participation, from posting online commentary to creating one’s own media, participating in an online game community or forum to using the internet to organize for a cause.

Each of these actions is not overtly political, but they all have the potential to be, and a small, yet significant minority of young social media users engage in what Cathy Cohen and Joe Kahne call “participatory politics.” Many of the aforementioned activities are directed towards political candidates, campaigns, or causes, and also assume an in-person dimension such as consumer activism, public protests, and poetry slams.

Cohen and Kahne find that youth engaging in participatory political activities are more likely to express interest in political issues and also feel capable of participating in the political process. Perhaps most importantly, there is striking racial equity on these measures as opposed to traditional forms of civic engagement.

Therefore, it’s imperative that we meet young people where they are; yes, Judy, on “their little machines.”

More broadly, in order to foster youth participation in elections, they must be afforded high-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities like those prescribed in the new Illinois civics course requirement.

Youth should also have opportunities to participate in the election process itself beyond voting, including serving as election judges, passing petitions, and being deputized as voter registrars (Illinois law now permits each of these activities for 17 year-olds).

Finally, we must make the institutions of democracy friendlier for youth participation. We remain hopeful that Governor Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly will revisit automatic voter registration, which will disproportionately benefit youth. We also encourage concerned citizens to rally one more time in 2018 to reform the legislative redistricting process in an effort to make our elections more competitive. Competition drives voter interest and turnout, especially among the youth population.

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