I’d like to let you in on what CNN political anchor and author Michele Mitchell calls the “dirty little secret” of our political establishment: Politicians don’t want you to vote.
Today almost all political campaigns are run by consultants who are paid to exert as much control over the election as possible. Unless they are working for a political outsider, most prefer elections that have very low voter turnout because only people with strong party, union, religious or ideological affiliation go to the polls. These voters are very predictable and are the easiest to control. It is no coincidence that, as political campaigns have become more centered around marketing in the past few decades, voter turnout in the entire population has plunged to all-time lows. The consultants and strategists have increased the precision with which they target their audience so that it now excludes all but the most single-minded voters.
I saw this phenomenon first-hand on a campaign I worked with a few years ago. The winning candidate recognized that voter turnout would be very low since it was a special election and focused his campaign efforts on area churches and their congregations. The tactic was effective because the people he appealed to were very responsive to the religious issues raised in the campaign. The church members became his “base voters” and he won the election by a strong margin.
Very few college students hold any affiliations that cause them to vote for certain candidates just because they are from a certain political party or are backed by a certain special interest group. In fact, the Politics Meets The Digital Generation report issued by the YVOTE2000 project at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism stated our generation “exhibits less partisanship than the population as a whole.”
This fact leads candidates to stay away from issues that are important to young adults and avoid most college campuses all together. Students tend to respond by not voting at all and the cycle of voter apathy keeps on spinning. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Young adults can make a difference in America’s political system but they have to be willing to invite themselves to the party.
Across the country many of our peers are doing just that. Over 40 officials elected between the ages of 18 and 24 in the past four years are currently in office. They include the majority leader of the New York City Council, 15 state representatives and even a mosquito control board member. They represent states as far east as Maine and as far west as California. Their political affiliations range from Republican to Democrat, from Green to Libertarian and they are as varied ethnically as they are geographically.
One of these student politicians is a University of Montana student named Jesse Laslovich. When Laslovich ran as a freshman for the state house of representatives he faced two older opponents, one of whom attacked him on the basis of his age. “My main opponent indirectly tried using my age against me by saying that he was a taxpayer and had to feed a family,” said Laslovich. “He spoke bluntly with my constituents when going door to door, telling them I was too young to be a legislator.”
Laslovich chose not to respond negatively. He campaigned to be a “fresh voice for the future” and let the numbers do the talking when he beat his closest opponent by 40 percent. He proposed several pieces of legislation last session, two of which were signed into law by the governor. When asked about his accomplishments in office he responded with several paragraphs and ended by saying, “I am a proven example that young people can become involved in their government, whether it is local or state.”
Laslovich is one of many student activists and politicians. Campus Greens reports that they are starting seven to ten new chapters every week. One the other side of the political spectrum, College Republicans claims over 80,000 members. Politics is not for the faint of heart but it isn’t a lonely endeavor.
Our generation is three times as large as Generation X and it has been speculated that we will one day make up 41 percent of the U.S. population. That gives us a great deal of political power, but we must decide how we want to use it. We can either please the political strategists by staying out of the political arena or we can follow the example of Jesse Laslovich and many others who have involved themselves in government to make a difference in their communities. The choice is up to us.
Rhett Morris, a senior at Louisiana State University, is studying history and philosophy. He is also the executive director of YouthElect, a non-profit organization dedicated to involving young adults in the political process.