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Hello, Young Voters

More young voters turned out Nov. 7 than in elections past. That’s cause for celebration, until you scan the numbers.

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One of the most memorable manifestos circling e-mail in-boxes following the 2004 elections was titled “The Concession Speech John Kerry Should Have Given.” Among its many acerbic paragraphs, this one stood out like a dagger in the corpse:

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“I concede that I put too much faith in America’s youth. With 8 out of 10 of you opposing the president, with your friends and classmates dying in a war you disapprove of, with your future mortgaged to pay for rich old peoples’ tax breaks, you somehow managed to sit on your asses and watch the Cartoon Network while aging homophobic hillbillies carried the day. You voted in the exact same anemic percentage that you did in 2000. You suck. Seriously, you do. Thank you. Thank you very much.”

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This bookends nicely with a well-known, but rarely heard, saying among some professional pollsters: “The youth vote is a lot like an empty soda can in the gutter. Neither is worth walking across the street to piss on.”

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If that doesn’t make registered voters age 18 to 30 years old proud, nothing will.

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Except perhaps this: According to a preliminary estimate of youth participation in the 2006 midterm elections conducted by The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), an estimated 10 million Americans under the age of 30 voted in the Nov. 7 election. That’s an increase of “at least 2 million compared to 2002,” according to CIRCLE’s Nov. 8 press release.

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CIRCLE, which bills itself as “the nation’s premier research organization on the civic and political engagement of young Americans,” was obviously more interested in comparing youth-voting numbers between midterm elections, as opposed to elections generally. So the thought of how last week’s youth vote tallies stacked up compared to 2004’s has haunted my sleep of late, even if I liked the good news that, at long last, the nation’s young voters were starting to rustle from a very long nap.

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Yeah, if only.

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Like many Americans'and even some card-carrying Republicans'who see the freewheeling federal spending and reckless foreign policy of our current president as a cruel joke, I welcomed the news that Congress will at last have a chance to put some checks on King George’s power. But a closer look at CIRCLE’s youth vote numbers from 2002 and 2006 didn’t exactly make me smile. Those 2 million additional youth votes amounted to a mere 2 percent increase in the total share of youth votes cast across the nation. In the face of the 6,000 or so Florida votes that could have gone to Al Gore instead of Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential race, I’d never argue that every vote doesn’t count. Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding like the condescending 40-year-old, I just want to say for the record that a mere 2 percent increase over last year’s midterm elections is still pretty damned pathetic. It’s even more so when you consider that, again according to CIRCLE, voters 30 years of age and under constitute 24 percent of eligible voters. (Yeah, I know the first CIRCLE statistic cited voters under the age of 30, but allow me this one indulgence, please.)

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Roughly speaking, then, it seems clear that America’s youth willingly discard almost half of their full potential when it comes time to go to the polls.

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If I sound at all condescending to the 18- to 30-year-old age group, then let me condescend as well to my gender. For it’s also clear, again according to CIRCLE, that young women vote in greater numbers than do young men by a figure of 6 percent. Perhaps this has something to do with the anxiety young women feel over abortion rights. Let me state for the record that I think far more young men than young women are busy watching the Cartoon Network. Amid the current rage of all things Borat, let me state that my despair’s directed more at the fashionable apathy of young American men more than the gumption of young American women. Let the sisters lead, by all means. One day soon, hopefully, young American men will follow them to the voting booth.

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Also interesting are the geographic nuances of youth voting patterns CIRCLE has charted. In the 2004 elections, voters age 18 to 30 led the way in Minnesota, where almost 70 percent of them voted, to 63 percent and 62 percent in Wisconsin and Iowa, respectively. If the 14 percent youth vote turnout in Arizona during the 2002 elections is any indication of the youth vote in Western states as a bloc, I shudder to think how Utah performed that year.

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If it’s not apathy killing the youth vote, it’s cynicism. Sometimes university students and others in their late 20s are so intellectual in their assessments of any possibility of change within a democratic society that they become ignoramuses. Young people on the left tend to be the most willing victims, pontificating about the impossibility of a capitalistic society allowing even the most marginal changes in the “military-industrial complex,” or quoting Herbert Marcuse while failing to register to vote. Meanwhile, the right wing laughs all the way to power after a few tugs at the phone tree.

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There’s something pathetic about an age group happy to let half of its power sleep out democracy. With almost every form of entertainment available to them, it seems a downright hassle that they’d have to go to the trouble of making themselves available to democracy. South Africa, which has abolished apartheid and legalized gay marriage within a single generation, is a living example of what’s still possible when people get off their butts. Here in America, we barely remember that women once marched for suffrage, or black people with the audacity to register to vote endured humiliation and harassment or were murdered. But give us credit. If we don’t know what’s on television, we can at least quote Marcuse.

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