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Hey, Kids, It's Time to Get Off Your Asses

By Kevin Osborne · November 10th, 2010 · Porkopolis
Although they might not want to admit it, I'm betting many people reading this issue of CityBeat have something in common with Bristol Palin.

Palin, the 20-year-old daughter of erstwhile Tea Party leader and half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was too busy learning routines for ABC's Dancing with the Stars and forgot to vote in last week's midterm elections.

"I did not send in my absentee ballots to Alaska," the younger Palin told the TV show, Inside Edition. "I'm going to be in trouble. Sorry, mom!"

Whether it was laziness, a lapse of memory or, more likely, a set of misplaced priorities, it would be far too easy to chortle at Bristol over her inaction. Although voter turnout always is lower in non-presidential election years, the significant drop-off from two years ago — when Barack Obama was on the ballot — is maddening.

Overall, voter turnout in Hamilton County last week was an abysmal 49.43 percent, meaning less than half of eligible voters took time to cast a ballot. (Although provisional and absentee ballots aren't fully counted yet, it's not expected to budge that number much.) That's compared to 70.88 percent turnout in November 2008.

Even in comparison to the last midterm election, in 2006, turnout decreased. Four years ago, it hit 52.2 percent.

The Board of Elections doesn't keep track of who voted based on age, ethnic background or other demographic factors, only by the precincts where voters live and their party affiliation. It will take cross-referencing those numbers with U.S. Census tract data to do an in-depth analysis of who did and didn't vote, which will take time.

Based on initial analysis and anecdotal evidence, however, it appears one group that stayed home were twentysomethings. Big surprise. Despite all the hype over the years about “rocking the vote” and forming groups like the League of Pissed Off Voters, it's proven difficult to keep the youth population's attention focused for long. It's as if they have a monumental case of ADHD.

Early statistics that are available nationally paint a bleak picture.

Young people (between the ages of 18 and 29) totaled about 11 percent of the electorate this year, compared to 19 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Student Association.

About 20.9 percent of eligible young people cast ballots this year, compared to 23.5 percent in 2006.

Turnout was better in areas where there were organized efforts at engaging youth.

“It’s important to keep in the mind the distinction between where young people organized and where there was little electoral involvement when analyzing youth voting numbers,” says Lindsay McCluskey, U.S. Student Association president. “Where young people organized and candidates engaged youth, youth voting was impressive. This shows the power of student organizing and the importance of young people in government and electoral politics.”

As a side note: People who vote only in presidential elections baffle me. Much of the decision-making that affects everyday life is done either by Congress or at the state level. Casting a ballot every four years is insufficient. There's no such thing as “happily ever after” in a democracy; everyday is a battle that must be won anew.

It's true that thousands of young people took to the streets nationwide, at one time or another, in the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War but their involvement wasn't wholly altruistic or fueled by notions of flower power. In truth, there was a draft back then that could force young men to fight in a war they didn't support.

Worse, although the draft age was 18, the voting age in most states was 21, meaning you could be sent off to Southeast Asia without having even a minimal say in selecting the lawmakers and president who pursued the disastrous foreign policy.

But once the Constitution was amended in 1971 to lower the voting age and the draft was ended two years later, the youth political movement largely fizzled out.

A strange disconnect exists in American life. I was reminded of this about a week before Election Day when some acquaintances I know in their 20s and 30s were posting snarky comments online about something or other that Tea Party dimwit and senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell had said. As they happily guffawed about O'Donnell's latest outrageous statement, I inquired whether they had registered to vote. Some had; most hadn't.

There are a lot of reasons — some better than others — that people give for not voting.

Many critics say our two-party system prohibits the most qualified candidates from having a realistic shot at election or implementing substantive change (true); others insist the influence of corporate lobbyists and the influx of unlimited cash contributions have warped our system beyond recognition (mostly accurate); and some say their votes don't really matter (false — look at all the close races where recounts are under way).

Regardless, the indisputable fact remains: Even if you don't vote, they will.

“They” being, of course, people who want the system to serve their own self-interests and are all too willing to take action to have it happen. Piss and moan about the current system's injustices all you want, just know things will get worse without your involvement. If you don't want to help make the decisions that impact your life, rest assured there are others who are happy to make them for you.

In the words of the late editor George Jean Nathan, “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.”

Remember those words in the coming months before you bitch about the next bad thing done by John Boehner, Mitch McConnell or John Kasich.


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