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For Youths, Voting Rites

Author Offers Participation Ideas

What if, every time 18-year-olds cast their first vote, someone threw a party in their honor? What if parents bought them cards and gifts to congratulate them on the occasion, and public officials sent them letters, marking the vote as a necessary facet of the nation’s democracy?

Treating the first vote as a rite of passage would awaken young people to the importance of civic participation, writes Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jane Eisner in her new book, “Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in our Democracy.”

In 2002, for the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary, Eisner’s oldest daughter accompanied her to the polling place. Eisner had looked forward to the occasion of her daughter’s first vote and, after much thought, decided on a book of Walt Whitman poetry as a gift to mark the event.

Eisner quickly realized that the occasion’s excitement was lost on her daughter and almost everyone else. The moment sparked what Eisner called a “small, personal epiphany,” motivating her to take a closer look at the youth vote in America.

She discovered a disheartening trend. Voter turnout for 18- to 21-year-olds has declined consistently since 1972, when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

In her book, Eisner summed up the problem rather simply: “Young people don’t vote, so candidates don’t talk about their issues, so they become further disillusioned with the process and stay away in greater numbers.”

The solution to the disenfranchisement of youth voters is multifaceted, Eisner said in a recent telephone interview.

First, politics must return to a personal level. Addressing the issues that are important to young people would help them understand how voting influences their lives. Twenty-year-olds are thinking about college tuition costs and jobs, Eisner explained, not prescription drug benefits.

At the same time, candidates need to be real and avoid patronizing youth voters.

“There’s nothing that annoys my kids more than seeing middle-aged people pretending to be young and hip,” Eisner said.

Structural barriers also exist that inhibit high youth voter turnouts, which Eisner described in her book. For example, registration laws make it difficult for some college students to vote. Eisner noted that seven states have laws that require first-time voters to cast their ballots in person.

“This effectively disenfranchises college students away from home on their first election, since they are prohibited from filing an absentee ballot,” Eisner wrote.

She calls for a reversal of these laws, as well as a nationwide movement to allow election-day registration. Currently, six states allow voters to register the same day they vote.

Eisner rejects the notion that this would encourage procrastination.

“Allowing citizens to register on Election Day makes it more likely they will remember to both register and vote,” she wrote. “And contrary to certain conventional political wisdom, it does not swell the rolls of low-income Democrats.”

But the problem goes deeper than structural barriers. Civic education in schools needs improvement, Eisner said, and schools should ensure that high school seniors register to vote before they graduate.

“We need to think of school as a place to learn how to be a citizen,” she said. “It was one of the original goals of public education in this country.”

Community service requirements that have become part of the curriculum in recent years are a step in the right direction, Eisner said. “But it isn’t a substitute for participation in the larger political process.”

Parents and teachers need to “connect the dots” for youth, she said. High school students must understand that the officials they vote into office directly affect the places or people they service when volunteering.

And while recent pop culture trends, such as MTV’s Rock the Vote and WWE’s Smackdown Your Vote, might make it cool to vote and influence higher numbers in this year’s election, trends fade.

This is why, Eisner said, we must ritualize the political and civic coming of age that a person’s first vote signifies.

“By acknowledging the First Vote, by making a public fuss, we can demonstrate to a generation wary of hype and manipulation that they are, indeed, a welcome and necessary part of our democracy,” she wrote.