It’s Time To Make The First Vote A Cel­e­bra­tion

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Jane Eis­ner

Un­like so many mile­stones, the act o vot­ing or the irst time o en goes un­no­ticed.

This col­umn has a mes­sage for ev­ery per­son el­i­gi­ble to vote for the first time this Novem­ber. Cast that bal­lot!

And to ev­ery mother, fa­ther, sis­ter, brother, grand­par­ent, close rel­a­tive, teacher, prin­ci­pal, coach, rabbi, Hil­lel di­rec­tor, con­cerned neigh­bor and friend in that new voter’s life. Cel­e­brate that First Vote! Un­like so many of life’s sig­nif­i­cant mile­stones, the act of vot­ing for the first time of­ten goes un­no­ticed. Maybe the poll work­ers clap. Maybe the new voter gets a spe­cial sticker.

Con­trast that to the way we greet other rites of pas­sage in young lives with great fan­fare, cap­tur­ing the first step for pos­ter­ity on In­sta­gram and Face­book; spend­ing hun­dreds on prom dresses and thou­sands on bar mitz­vah par­ties; video­tap­ing soc­cer games and dance recitals; swoon­ing over the first date and swear­ing over the first car.

But in too many homes, schools, syn­a­gogues and com­mu­ni­ties, the First Vote, the in­tro­duc­tory step to­ward what should be a life­time of ac­tive cit­i­zen­ship, is wel­comed by lit­tle more than a col­lec­tive yawn.

This is­sue has been a pas­sion of mine for nearly two decades; I even wrote a book ex­plor­ing the his­tory of youth vot­ing and the de­cline in civic en­gage­ment, o–er­ing a blue­print for re­form — “Tak­ing Back the Vote: Get­ting Amer­i­can Youth In­volved in Our Democ­racy,” pub­lished by Bea­con Press in ƒ„„ž. It’s okay if you haven’t heard of it. Sadly, it never made Oprah’s best-seller list, though you can still buy it on Ama­zon!

The book’s cen­tral themes were largely adapted by Barack Obama’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in ƒ„„…, which saw a surge in youth vot­ing. And, damn it, they are largely still rel­e­vant to­day.

Vot­ing is not a soli­tary state­ment, even if in some states you can fill out an early bal­lot at † a.m. in your pa­ja­mas. It is ex­e­cuted in se­crecy, but not in iso­la­tion, be­cause it is be­hav­ior that is part of a com­mu­nal ecosys­tem, pred­i­cated on a core be­lief in the agency of the in­di­vid­ual to shape his or her sur­round­ings in con­cert with oth­ers.

Sure, it’s thrilling when the likes of Michelle Obama, Lin-Manuel Mi­randa and Tom Hanks share their vot­ing sto­ries, or when there’s a spike in voter regis­tra­tion after Tay­lor Swift urges her fans to get in­volved, or when Ri­hanna re­minds her ‘’ mil­lion In­sta­gram fol­low­ers to sign up be­fore it’s too late. But re­search shows that celebrity en­dorse­ments, no mat­ter how sparkling, have a lim­ited im­pact, es­pe­cially on a gen­er­a­tion sat­u­rated with brand mar­ket­ing mes­sages.

Far more pow­er­ful are ex­hor­ta­tions from peers and trusted au­thor­ity fig­ures, those whom young vot­ers-to-be ad­mire. Be­cause, ul­ti­mately, vot­ing is an act of faith. Faith that your vote will, in­deed, count (and these days, that does re­quire an imag­i­na­tive leap). Faith that you can, un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, make a di–er­ence in your com­mu­nity.

We know that this faith is in dan­ger­ously short sup­ply among young vot­ers, but the rea­son for this is of­ten mis­un­der­stood. It’s sim­ply not ac­cu­rate or fair to blame these vot­ers en­tirely for be­ing dis­en­gaged or ap­a­thetic; the rea­son young peo­ple don’t vote is that our so­ci­ety has done its ut­most to dis­cour­age them from do­ing so.

Pas­sage of the ƒ‘th Amend­ment low­er­ing the vot­ing age to ™… from ƒ™ went into e–ect in time for the ™š›ƒ pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, and that year, ’„% of ™…- to ƒž-year-olds cast a bal­lot. His­tor­i­cally, the num­bers should have risen in sub­se­quent elec­tions. When other formerly dis­en­fran­chised groups were given the right to vote — such as women and African Amer­i­cans — their par­tic­i­pa­tion lev­els in­creased over time. For young vot­ers, it’s been just the op­po­site.

Turns out that ’›ƒ was the high point of their elec­toral par­tic­i­pa­tion. Vot­ing

rates for - to -year-olds in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions dropped to a record low in ( %) climbed back up for Obama’s first elec­tion ( %) and dropped down ( %) in  . While polls in­di­cate a swelling en­thu­si­asm for this year’s midterms among - to

-year-olds, his­tory also shows that there’s a sub­stan­tial gap be­tween those who say they will “def­i­nitely” vote and those who ac­tu­ally do.

Why? Broader struc­tural forces in play have de­pressed youth turnout, mak­ing it harder for them to vote and harder for them to be­lieve that their votes ac­tu­ally count. But in those trends are also the seeds of re­form.

Vot­ing is a habit, a learned be­hav­ior, but our cul­ture doesn’t prize it or en­cour­age it. If we did, Elec­tion Day would be a na­tional hol­i­day — com­bined with Vet­er­ans Day. (What bet­ter way to honor true sac­ri­fice?) Ev­ery state would oŽer same-day regis­tra­tion, which stud­ies have shown im­proves voter turnout. But, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures, only • states and the Dis­trict of Columbia al­low vot­ers to reg­is­ter on Elec­tion Day; an­other two make it pos­si­ble dur­ing part of their early vot­ing pe­riod.

For young peo­ple, who move from home to cam­pus to job to wher­ever, be­ing forced to reg­is­ter weeks in ad­vance dis­cour­ages turnout.

If we gen­uinely cared about im­prov­ing youth voter turnout, then we would re­verse the wide­spread de­cline and dis­in­vest­ment in civic ed­u­ca­tion in the na­tion’s schools. Here’s why: A

 na­tional sur­vey by The Cen­ter for In­for­ma­tion & Re­search on Civic Learn­ing & En­gage­ment, at Tufts Univer­sity, found this: “Young peo­ple who re­called high-qual­ity civic ed­u­ca­tion ex­pe­ri­ences in high school were more likely to vote, to form po­lit­i­cal opin­ions, to know cam­paign is­sues, and to know gen­eral facts about the U.S. po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.”

Some­times po­lit­i­cal sci­ence goes to great lengths to prove the ob­vi­ous.

These spe­cific fac­tors in­ter­act with a larger land­scape that sup­presses over­all voter turnout, in­clud­ing the dra­matic ab­sence of com­pet­i­tive races due to ger­ry­man­der­ing and to the Repub­li­can at­tempts to place new re­stric­tions on vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly mi­nor­ity and poor cit­i­zens.

Still, I re­main more hope­ful than I was a decade ago that these trends will re­verse, and that’s be­cause young peo­ple them­selves are lead­ing the charge with courage and cre­ativ­ity. While all of us must work on the struc­tural changes needed to truly strengthen rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy, we also must sup­port and cel­e­brate those who are tak­ing the first, brave steps to or­ga­nize and act.

I gave my old­est daugh­ter a slim vol­ume of Walt Whit­man po­etry to mark her First Vote. What are you do­ing to cel­e­brate the First Vote of a spe­cial per­son in your life?

We must sup­port and cel­e­brate those who are tak­ing the irst, brave steps to or­ga­nize and act.


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