Distributed August 18, 2000
Copyright ©2000 by Elizabeth Hollander
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 600 Words

Elizabeth Hollander

Disengaged youth: What’s a politician to do?

In the last national election, four out of five potential voters aged 18 to 24 did not cast a vote. Voting among young persons has declined since 1972, when Congress extended the franchise. We must find a way to address civic disengagement among college-age voters.

A strange thing happened in the 1972 election, when Congress extended voting rights to 18-year-old citizens. Despite the arguments – why, for example, could 18-year-olds die in war but not vote? – turnout at the polls of the newly enfranchised voters was disappointing.

In the ensuing decades, voting has only declined among young people. In the last national election, in the fall of 1998, four out of five potential voters aged 18 to 24 failed to exercise the franchise. Why? According to a survey by the National Association of Secretaries of State, voters in that age group say they feel as if politicians ignore them, as if their vote doesn’t really count.

With the Republican and Democratic presidential teams in place, it is worth considering why so many young voters feel they are on the outside of our democracy looking in.

This is a serious concern among the nation’s college and university presidents, many of whom see the civic disconnection of youth as evidence that American democracy is in trouble. They know their campuses are among the increasingly rare places where large groups of young people can be challenged to explore the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, but the civic disengagement problem is much more than a campus issue.

The good news is that today’s young people are neither self-absorbed nor disinterested in their communities. Throughout the country, students are involving themselves in community service in ever-larger numbers. Community service has proven to be an effective tool for learning and teaching, and many schools have begun to build community service into the curriculum. Yet, while students have responded enthusiastically to community service opportunities, they have not made the essential connection between community service and political participation. Tutoring schoolchildren is admirable and useful; demanding that cities and towns improve their public schools is a step toward involvement in civic affairs.

A coalition of 675 college presidents known as Campus Compact is leading a national movement to reinvigorate higher education’s civic mission. A few weeks ago, many of those presidents gathered in Philadelphia to discuss strategies for promoting civic participation among young people. They will launch a major voter registration drive on campuses this fall. Among other strategies, they urged the U.S. presidential candidates to embrace the issue and to promote policies that would attract young people toward participation in the political system. Specifically, college presidents are asking the candidates to:

  • Send a representative to a series of forums on civic responsibility. The forums would take place on several college campuses during the week of Oct. 3, when the first presidential debate will take place.

  • Use the first presidential debate to address the concerns of young people and to give them a voice at the debate.

  • Commit, if elected, to hosting a White House Conference on the political participation of young people. As a start, many college presidents believe the White House Conference should consider loan forgiveness for students committed to careers in community and public service.

Throughout the years of the civil rights movement, the question “What are the rights of every citizen?” was foremost. As a nation, we have made substantial progress on issues of civil rights, though there is work remaining to be done. But now, during the first national election of the 21st century, we must also find a way to address the “responsibility” element of citizenship with a similar sense of urgency and passion. The questions before us now are “What are the responsibilities of every citizen?” and “What can each citizen contribute to the commonwealth?”

Elizabeth Hollander is executive director of Campus Compact, a national coalition of college and university presidents committed to the civic purposes of higher education.