Politicians are starting to catch on: young people will vote, we just have to ‘like’ it. This month, the president held a Youth Town Hall that aired on MTV and BET, featuring MTV’s pop art-meets-politics Twitter Tracker that broadcasted the event online and generated thousands of tweeted questions from young viewers. Members of Congress are increasingly active on Facebook and Twitter, forums that thrive on 140 character soundbytes and the chance for public debate. YouTube videos of campaign commercials are being viewed by the thousands and blogged about by the hundreds, especially if they mention witchcraft.
And yet, while some politicians are boosting their online engagement to meet us where we are, the power of the youth vote is chronically shrugged off by those who see young people as apathetic digital consumers, looking for cheap laughs but ultimately disinterested in the political process. One needs only to look at any 20-something’s Facebook newsfeed, littered with the latest political happenings, to see that that is a mistake no one should make.
Young people are the largest growing voting block. We came out in record numbers for the 2008 election, as YouTube took its first bows as a political soapbox to be reckoned with. An estimated 22 million young people under the age of 30 voted in 2008 – two million more than in 2004. The youth voter turnout rose to an extraordinary 51 percent. At the same time, older adults voted at lower rates than in 2004 and only slightly above their 2000 level. Young people’s enthusiasm for civic engagement did not stop after 2008, but real engagement with young people did.
Young people have made the Internet what it is today. We develop our individual personalities through forums like YouTube and Facebook. So yes, we may not be responsive to antiquated and impersonal robocalls and mass mailings, but we are awake and responsive to creative, non-traditional civic engagement happening online.
The challenge of taking online enthusiasm to the streets has long eluded the political status quo, leaving room for activists to bridge the online-offline divide. The League of Young Voters Education Fund is working to do just that, bringing community organizing "from the blogs to the blocks." The League registered thousands of young people by taking their volunteer campaigns to clubs, dance halls and recreation centers to "party with a purpose." The intimacy of a social venue creates the perfect opportunity for the personal connection that is the fabric of community engagement. The coordination that went into pulling this together wasn’t just done door-to-door, but through the new doors of texting, Facebook and email. Add a little face-to-face time at a club, coupled with rigorous list management and data entry, and we’ve got engaged young people ready to pull the lever on November 2 – and then brag about it online.
In a world of retweets and shared links, politics has become popular, with political gaffes and uncovered intrigue constantly trending in social media. Young people aren’t moved to engage in the election process just because we saw the latest blunder on Facebook. We also don’t vote just to vote. We vote because we know that elected officials make decisions that affect our lives. We vote because we care about the issues.
Organizations like Choice USA are working to bring these issues to the ballot box. Young people in Choice USA’s California State University Long Beach chapter have registered nearly a thousand of their peers, and they are drawing the connection between voting and what that means for the future of comprehensive sex education in the United States. Andrew Jenkins, a senior and leader of Choice USA at CSU Long Beach, said, "When we talk to students about registering, we find that they are much more likely to register and vote if they know that the issues that matter to our well-being hang in the balance, and comprehensive sex education matters."
Online engagement is a crucial place to start for politicians that want the youth vote. Social media is a language that savvy politicians can employ to show young people that our lives and our styles are respected in the legislative arena. If politicians aren’t online, then they aren’t engaging with the largest growing voting block, and who does that serve? The engagement can’t stop, however, with a few tweets or status updates. Strategists need to follow the lead of youth activists who push online enthusiasm to the streets in ways that move young people to act.
On November 2, thanks to the hard work of young activists who are registering, educating and activating their peers, young people will be at the ballot box. We will be voting for elected officials who can prove that they’ve made change and have the energy to do it again. When the votes have been counted, we’ll be online shaking our heads and sharing digital ‘high fives.’ We won’t disappear after the election. We will work to hold those we put in office accountable for the promises they made – the Internet never forgets. And we’ll do it even bigger in two years time.