Chatting with my neighbors this past weekend, I found out that one of their kids was working on a "get out the youth vote" project. One aspect of the project is interviewing political leaders and aspirants. When asked if their student could interview me, I said, "Absolutely!" (There's nothing like reliving your glory days – no matter how badly you lose.)
Anyway ... the front-yard conversation got me thinking about why people vote. For me, there's no question as to if I will vote: I feel obliged and privileged to do so, and am proud to perform the duties of an Election Official. But in 2015 I chose not to cast a vote for my Virginia General Assembly delegate. Why? Because she ran unopposed – as did 61 other delegates and 17 state senators. And if you have no opposition, why run a campaign? So my delegate didn't: there were no campaign events.
Americans like competitive sports and competitive reality shows, and we're at our best when we compete in business and politics. Part of political inclusion and participation is ensuring that there is a competition of ideas between competing candidates. However with gerrymandering and codification of political entitlement, incumbent politicians guarantee their continued existence and reelection. Why should young people vote if there are no choices?
Voting preferences may involve one of many factors: party identification, a single issue, the greater good, my financial well-being. In 2012, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote about this last factor:
Older Americans show up disproportionately at the ballot box, in Congress (the average age of a senator is 63), and in our budget. Fifty percent of federal benefits flow to the 13 percent of the population over the age of 65, David Leonhardt reported in the New York Times last weekend.While it's cynical to say that votes are bought with entitlements, I think it's fair to say that seniors have more time to ponder their financial well-being and project their conclusions at the polls while youth are focusing on school, careers, and young families. (Sure this may be a bit simplistic, but I'll own it.) Seniors also have the political might of AARP to impress those conclusions on legislators between elections.
But Americans of every age group think that the federal budget should focus more on young people than old people, according to the American Values Poll, from The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, which was released today. Asked if Washington should aim its spending toward the young, 73% of twentysomethings and a plurality of senior citizens said yes.
So I think the key to greater youth political involvement lies in politicians acting against their own best interest: greater competition at the polls, greater competition of ideas between generations, and some plain talk on entitlements. Focusing on a prosperous posterity with youth now can plant a seed that will grow and mature, yielding fruit for many generations to come.