"There are kids who are politically interested for one reason or another - from their parents or something else, but the majority of students do not even know what's going on. I would be surprised if you asked if they even knew there was an election," remarked Jeff Davis, a social studies teacher at San Ramon Valley High School. According to Davis, this apathy is nothing new.
"Kids are as disengaged as they have always been. The only reason youth voted in the 1960s was because of the draft. Had there not been a draft, kids would have been checked out."
"I don't think the teen vote is that influential," Davis continued, "because to put it simply, they don't vote - except that it appears candidate Barack Obama's success in Iowa was tied to getting young people to vote."
Indeed, 65,000 voters ages 18-30 participated in the Iowa caucuses last month (nearly three times the number of participants in 2004), and a whopping 57 percent of votes for Obama were cast by voters below the age of 30.
This election, the candidates are especially making large efforts to reach American youth. Most of the primary candidates have even created campaign pages on social networking Web sites like MySpace and Facebook to target young people, who are the primary users of such sites. Other Web sites, like the non-partisan group VoteHelp, also allow individuals to take surveys and quizzes that help to clarify their position on certain issues, and to find the candidate their views best match.
Some states are also trying to make the youth influence more significant, by extending the vote to 17-year-olds. In Virginia, teens that are 17 but will turn 18 by November's general election will be allowed to register and vote in the current primary elections. Other states, like Maryland, are also considering changing their policy.
Even if not completely interested in the political scene, students should still be informed. For one reason or another - lack of interest, time, resources, etc. - students are not getting the information they need to form substantiated opinions, make an informed vote, and contribute to the democratic process. I think there is a general assumption that teens do not want to know, or that they do not care. But, this current generation of youth has been deemed "Generation Now" for a reason - it is possible that teens are interested, but need the news and information handed to them on a silver platter. Still, there is no excuse. There are many resources available, and teens should be making every effort to be informed, and to exercise the democratic rights with which they are endowed.
"Youth should take advantage of their right to vote, because at our age we are able to really figure out what we think and how we feel; if we allow ourselves to just vote the way our parents vote then we will possibly and probably end up voting against our own interests and our own beliefs," said SRVHS senior Mike Gibbons. "In addition, the laws that are being passed now will affect teens more than any other demographic for the next 10 or 20 years. We have the greatest interest in what laws get passed in the next five or 10 years because they will affect us most."
"I think forming an educated opinion and exercising it is essential to a functioning democracy, " Venture High School senior Robbie Pruett noted. "The more votes are cast, the more opinions are represented; that is the definition of democracy."
America's youth have always been more or less uninterested in politics, and those who do vote frequently do so on the basis of family beliefs, not personal ones. The idea of engaging the youth of America as a whole is logistically impossible; but, in order to serve the interests of this significant part of the population, it is imperative that a large portion of American youth form and express their opinions via the vote. It is important to encourage young people to be aware, and to pique their interest and set in place voting habits at an early age in order to inspire lifelong democratic contribution.
The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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