Editors' note: Greg Varnum is the acting Executive Director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you're aware that the youth vote has been a hot topic this election cycle. I can appreciate that many feel the youth vote is a hot topic every election cycle...and that every cycle it's a block of voters many feel are sure to disappoint. Maybe I'm too much of an idealist - but when someone asks me if we can avoid another Mondale-level disappointment with young voters and end the trend of poor turnout - I say "yes we can."
Many politicians have learned from the past, thrown out their usual playbook when it comes to young voters and are having success with new strategies. The talented folks at Rock the Vote (www.rockthevote.org) are also trying a lot more than just concerts and sexy t-shirts this time around. Starting this past Monday, thanks to a new partnership between Microsoft and Rock the Vote, you can now register to vote using your Xbox 360 video game console via Xbox Live. Finally, a chance to participate in the political process and kill hundreds of mutant aliens all in one sitting.
The National Youth Advocacy Coalition recently launched the start of our 2008 election initiative, Queer the Vote (election.nyacyouth.org). We're responding to the common questions the organizations we work with receive from young people about voting. For example, some young people believe they can go to any polling place to vote and some thought because they were out-of-state attending college they were unable to vote. Over the coming weeks we'll be soliciting questions from young people to ask the candidates. We're also preparing some talking points for organizations to use when reaching out to young voters.
What can you do and say to young voters? When I go out and talk with young people about voting, I've learned that while the excitement in politics comes from the national arena, the motivation for young people to vote may not. For better or worse, our society has done a great job of conveying to young people that government is not to be trusted and that the popular vote may not matter after all. However, talking about how 70% of government decisions are local or state brings things a bit closer to home.
Another thing to keep in mind - our culture has trained young consumers to ask, "What's in it for me?" Telling someone that they can be one of millions who will select the next President - whom they'll likely never meet and whose work may not have an impact for years to come - just isn't a message that answers their question. Pointing out that their local elected school board may very well decide whether or not anti-bullying policies will be adopted at the schools they grew up attending is more direct. In Michigan they elect the State Supreme Court - who this past year made a very anti-LGBT ruling, which upset many college students. Now is a great time to remind them that their vote could stop that from happening again.
Rock the Vote, Generation Vote (www.genvote.org) and the League of Young Voters (www.theballot.org) are among the organizations effectively connecting specific issues as a motive for young people to vote. As a community, we have a slew of issues we can point to as motives for young people to vote and impact their local, state and federal officials. However, our movement's favorite get out the vote issue -marriage - is a little too "ten years from now" for a lot of today's young voters, so talking about ENDA or local funding of safe sex education may be more exciting and tangible.
Whether it's committing to having a conversation with your niece about her plans on election day or launching a campaign to get out the youth vote, I hope you'll play a part in proving that when it comes to improving the track record of youth voter participation, the answer to "Can we do it?" is "Yes we can!"