Are today’s youth truly disengaged from the voting process? In light of statistics showing that one-third of all youth eligible to vote in 2012 will have turned 18 since November 2008, and that every month for the next two decades, 50,000 Latinos will turn 18, this question needs to be addressed. While my own experience tells me otherwise, and numbers during the last election actually increased (i.e. 39 percent of 18 to 24 year old Latinos voted in the 2008 election), there’s still a broad consensus that young people, particularly Latinos, aren’t interested in politics.
I had the chance to discuss this very question with some of the participants of a voting drive I organized this past week in Baltimore, MD. One of the outcomes from the conversation was how we all felt that, more often than not, today’s youth have no idea about how voting affects their lives directly. Being the mom of a teen who’s soon to be 18 – and who, by the way, is really bothered by the fact that she won’t be able to vote this year – this got me thinking: With youth being so well connected these days, how can they seem so disconnected from civic participation? I discussed this at length with Dana Vickers Shelley, a voter registration volunteer certified by the Maryland Board of Elections (and co-organizer of the voting drive).
Dana, a woman whose impressive resume includes being the former Senior Communications Appointee during the Clinton Administration, has been helping citizens register to vote since 2004. She is convinced that “young people are involved now, it’s just in a different way than they have been in the past. I think they are excited for our future and how they can contribute to our country’s success. But even with that, I don’t know how many young people have decided or even see how voting connects to it all.”
Even in a household like mine, where political discussions have become the tasty complement to many a family dinner, I’ve noticed this to be the case. While my daughter understands the importance of voting and goes out of her way to encourage her friends who can vote into doing it, she doesn’t always make the connection of the act of voting to her own daily life.
Open discussion of issues at home fueled Soledad Nuñez’s interest in civic work. This 19-year-old college student and activist recently co-founded — along with Lupe Pasillas — a non-partisan youth group called Latinos United for Voting (L.U.V.), after noticing the disinterest of her peers in the upcoming elections. For her, part of the disconnect comes from the fact that “politics and history have always been geared to older people, so the youth don’t see it as something fun and they don’t make the connection as to how it can affect them.”
While she doesn’t necessarily believe that all youth are disconnected, the experience with her own group has taught her that outreach is stronger when it is put into the context of young people’s lives. “Whether it’s talking about health and reproductive services, undocumented student’s rights, or how much funding your school gets, there are so many things that affect us. It’s not just about listening to music or watching MTV.”
Vickers-Shelly agrees. “It’s important to talk to youth about registering and vote[ing], not just in November when everyone is thinking about it. And it’s also important to discuss what schools used to call civics. Whether it is the ‘no texting while driving’ laws, laws related to student loans, opportunities for college graduates or even health care and the Affordable Care Act, one must make it a point to discuss those things that definitely mean something different to them,” she says.
In the end, I believe everyone’s hope is that the up-and-coming generation turns out to be one of discerning, responsible, independent thinkers who can analyze the world’s situation and know they have the power to exert change. Our youth, Latinos or not, may not trust politicians, may be disenchanted with the process, but could it be that all they need is a little change of perspective?
We all have young people around us whom we can influence to varying degrees. As you go about your day, maybe you can strike up a spontaneous civic conversation with a neighborhood kid. Maybe you can encourage your kid to run for class president, or help you run a neighborhood park clean-up, go with you to your charity or volunteering activities, or go to your voting place. Maybe you introduce them to a civic-minded group, like the one Soledad is running. Or maybe, like me, you can start serving your meals with a nice side dish of news commentary. The point is to make them understand that politics is not about politicians: it’s about taking ownership of our very own, everyday life.
Elianne Ramos is Principal/CEO of Speak Hispanic Marketing and Vice-Chair, Marketing and PR for Latinos in Social Media (LATISM). Under LATISM, she is also Chief Editor of the LATISM blog, and hostess to weekly Twitter chats reaching over 18.8 million impressions. Follow her on Twitter @ergeekgoddess.