Many of these aggrieved youth believe that the government has become unresponsive, that their voices have been silenced, and therefore protest is the only option. But this strikes me as a fundamental misreading of the past three years. It is likely that few of the protesters have actually taken part in the more mundane aspects of the system they’d like to take down—for example, only 24% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2010 mid-term elections. And while they were quietly seething, the tea-party movement was showing America what democracy actually looks like, pushing their candidates forward and holding them accountable. When liberals complain that the Republicans are beholden to the tea-party movement, is that not an admission that the system is responsive?
I can’t disagree that youth turnout in this country remains pitiful. But I don’t think low turnout is an effect of laziness, or some alienation based on general teen angst; it’s the effect of a larger agenda, emanating exclusively from the right, and geared to keep young people out of politics. If young people feel alienated from national politics, it’s because they’re deliberately made to.
When we train Democratic election protection workers, we teach them three things. First, that their role is to preserve the integrity of the franchise, and not to electioneer, or otherwise favor Democratic candidates. If their efforts result in an increase in Democratic votes, it must be because they have cleared away obstacles that impede willing voters, not placed them in front of others. Second, we teach them to look for racial intimidation tactics — the presence of police officers (not generally a requirement under state election laws), and overly aggressive or unnecessary requests for identification. Third, we give them a thorough background in state student-voter laws. Most states permit university students to vote based on their university residence — this is fair, because young people will naturally feel more connected to the democratic process of their adopted home and, it’s where they actually live.
But students frequently receive conflicting information about their right to vote, from Republican-controlled state agencies, or activists masquerading as election officials at pollsites. 2008 saw more than a few state boards of elections — like Virginia — engaged in a deliberate attempt to confuse and deter student voting, which was perceived as likely to (and ultimately did) flip the state into the Democrats’ column.
Consider this alongside other obstacles in the voting process — unnecessarily early registration deadlines, obstacles to registering for (and receiving) an absentee ballot, and the hopeless gerrymandering of city voters, all barriers opposed by Democrats but propped up by Republicans — and is it any wonder students and young people feel alienated, and driven to protest?