By Alan Shapiro
To the Teacher:
A recent set of materials on this website, "What do you think about politics?," includes an excerpt from a prize-winning essay by a high school student. Her opening sentence—"We don't believe in politics"—was one brutally direct answer to that title. But the 2006 midterm elections saw an upsurge in voting by young people.
Voters in the 18-29 age range went to the polls in the largest numbers in 20 years. The percentage of such voters is only 24 percent but, as the reading indicates, a reason for optimism and an opportunity for discussion of young voter concerns.
What are the young voters thinking?
"The only way we can make politicians pay attention to people our age is if we turn out in record numbers," said Kelly Dolan, a student at the University of Rhode Island.
Turning out in record numbers is what young people, 18-29, did in the 2006 midterm elections. Those numbers looked "like the highest in 20 years" to Mark Lopez, research director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), www.civicyouth.org. He couldn't say they were the highest ever because there are no pre-1986 data.
An estimated 10 million young Americans under 30 voted on November 7, an increase of at least two million over their participation in the 2002 midterm elections. "A new generation of voters has arrived as a force in politics," said Heather Smith, Director of Young Voter Strategies (www.youngvoterstrategies.org).
CIRCLE reported that of these 10 million, 61 percent voted for Democrats, the highest proportion for any age group.
A Republican pollster, Ed Goeas, said that young voters could have swayed a number of races because Democrats won 22 of 28 victories in the House of Representatives by a margin of less than 2 percent. Eighteen of these victories came by 5,000 votes or less. "The increase in the youth vote did come into play," he said.
A poll by the Harvard University Institute of Politics (www.iop.harvard.edu/pdfs/newsroom/fall_2006_release.pdf) showed that by a 3-1 margin young voters said the country was on the "wrong track." Forty-three percent of them said that the most important issue in the elections was Iraq. Other major issues for them, according to the Harvard and a Young Voter Strategy poll, were rising costs for college and student loans and "crippling levels of student debt," jobs and the economy, health care and energy issues.
The poll indicated that young people have lost faith in nearly all government institutions with the exception of the military. Less than one-third trust the president, Congress or the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Sixty percent expressed dissatisfaction with President Bush.
The Young Voter Strategy poll found that 40 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats, 30 percent as Republicans, and 23 percent as Independents.
A progressive organization called Campus Progress, an arm of the Center for American Progress, said that it made a much great effort than in the past to raise more money, register more young voters and get them to the polls. In the past, it said, "conservatives have out-hustled progressives."
Still, 32 million young Americans in the 18-29 age group did not vote.
Young Voter Strategies said that it had registered 455,000 young voters in the past few months. Generation Y Americans born 1977-1996 have been "shaped by the September 11 attacks, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina. In nine years it will make up one-third of the electorate."
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. How would you explain why at least two million more voters under thirty participated in the 2006 midterm elections than in the 2002 midterms?
3. By a margin of 3 to 1, young voters said the country is on the "wrong track." What do you think they meant? Do you agree? Why or why not? Why do you think that 61 percent of them voted for Democrats?
4. Consider what young voters identified as the most important issues: Iraq, rising costs for college loans and "crippling levels of student debt," jobs and the economy, health care, energy issues. In each case, why do you suppose young voters are concerned about the issue?
5. Are there other issues that matter more to you? If so, what? and why?
6. Why do you suppose that young voters express such lack of trust in the president, Congress, and the federal government? Do you share this view? Why or why not?
7. Do you think you have been "shaped by the September 11 attacks, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina?" If so, how and why? If not, in each case why not? What other events do you think have shaped you and why?
8. Despite the significant increase in the numbers of young people voting in 2006, a little more than three-quarters of the 18-29 age group did not vote. What might have been some of the reasons?
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org