Audio and photo from Obama's KeyArena stop on Friday , Feb. 8. Photos and audio by Chris Kornelis.

The lack of youth participation in elections


Krist Novoselic: The Youth Vote Is Aroused -- But For How Long?


Audio and photo from Obama's KeyArena stop on Friday, Feb. 8. Photos and audio by Chris Kornelis.

The lack of youth participation in elections is a perennial concern. 2008 promises to be different. With the major party nomination season well underway, voting data is revealing a remarkable increase in youth engagement.

Traditionally, campaigns have tried to rouse youth through cultural and entertainment means. This year is the exception. One candidate is getting youth’s attention through sheer message. Last Friday, the Obama phenomenon packed Seattle’s KeyArena with many young faces.

There’s a lot of excitement! But, the Washington Democratic caucus has passed and once the nomination is settled, there will be a different race, and institutional barriers will very likely drain energy from democratic vitality.

Research shows youth engaged in their communities. It’s easy to reconcile this civic spirit with low rates of participation. But, it's our election rules that have fostered a culture of apathy towards voting.

The Blue State / Red State dynamic of presidential electoral politics settles the race in most state’s long before election day. As a result of winner-take-all elector appointment, two kinds of voters emerge and both are written off by the major party campaigns.

First, we have the surplus voter. If Washington falls early into the Blue State column, the charismatic candidate from Illinois won’t have time to come to Washington. Sen. Obama will be busy campaigning in the swing states. It wouldn’t matter if every 18 to 30 year old turned out to vote for the Democrat ticket, these voters are a meaningless surplus.

And what about young Republicans? If Washington does go Blue, these folks become orphan voters. Just like the Democratic race, the Republican ticket will be battling in the swing states so resources are spent where needed. Since the minority gets zero electors, these orphan voters are effectively abandoned by the national presidential campaign.

Instead of invigorating local participation in their own communities, enthusiastic young voters will travel thousands of miles to work on the campaigns in the swing states.

Youth are engaged in the major party nominations because competition drives initiative and the campaigns are reaching out to voters of all ages.

Our legislature can and should appoint all electors to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the statewide vote. This would ensure that votes for either ticket are meaningful, regardless of the direction the state sways. Once enough states agree to join this compact, we’ll have sidestepped a huge barrier. Let’s encourage the good folks in Olympia to support this antidote to the poisonous effects of the Electoral College. SB 5628 is in the Senate Rules Committee. HB 1750 is the House version. Gov. Gregoire must sign this legislation.

(Senate Rules Committee should also pass SB 6000 – Ranked Choice Voting for local elections in counties that already have it.)

On the local level, down-ballot races suffer enough from disengaged voters of all-ages. Many congressional and state legislative races, in themselves, reveal the surplus / orphan problem. For example, there’s little reason besides statewide elections to rouse youth turnout for any major party in safe-seat Democratic Seattle. Mostly Republican Eastern Washington is the other side of the same coin.

The United States lags most of the world in voter turnout. We need structural changes to clear the way for lasting, meaningful change. If we build it, they will come.

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