Three reasons why young people must vote
Editor's note: The York Dispatch is running a series of stories written by student journalists as part of a mentoring program with York College. In this op-ed, sophomore Nathan Leakway encourages young people to take a more active role in politics.
Many students I've spoken to about the coming election express the same sentiments: “I don’t follow the news” and “I don’t even know who’s running.”
While I find this concerning, it is understandable. We are inundated with 24-hour news cycles and obnoxious pundits every time we turn on the television or fire up YouTube or Instagram. With such a proliferation of content designed to elicit anger and discontent, apathy can seem like a justifiable defensive reaction.
I cast my first vote in a major election in 2008 for Barack Obama. At the time, I’d been sold on what was a refreshingly optimistic campaign. Obama’s slogan for the campaign, “Hope,” suggested a real turning point in American politics, as if history was happening right now and we were there to participate in it. Many young people (I was 19 at the time) started to believe as I did that maybe we had finally reached a point in our culture where electing a black man to the nation’s highest office not only seemed possible but inevitable.
But had this not been the case, it is very unlikely that I, a politically disengaged college student, would have cared enough to travel the five or six blocks to Beacon Presbyterian Church in North Philadelphia early in the morning on Nov. 4, 2008, to cast my vote. I almost certainly would have stayed home.
What follows is my plea for you to not stay home. Here are three reasons why you, as a college student, should stay aware of local politics and why you should make an effort to vote on Nov. 8.
1. The outcomes of the midterm election will affect you and the people you care about.
What I was experiencing in 2008 was a false turning point. Obama’s two terms were pretty much “business as usual” and he fell short of many of the promises he made during his first campaign. Our current political moment, however, is a real inflection point. The outcomes of the upcoming midterm elections around the country will determine how our government engages with (or doesn’t engage with) issues that will affect us for the foreseeable future. Some of these issues, including the environment, access to health care, and women’s rights, carry such weight they could very well be deemed existential.
If you believe that individuals have the right to make informed medical decisions along with their health care providers, without the intrusion of the state, you should vote.
If you believe the uber wealthy should, like you, pay their share in taxes, you should vote.
If you believe that the education of young people is a priority and deserves funding as such, you should vote.
2. Uninformed voters are a threat to democracy.
A cornerstone of democracy is the ability of the demos, the people, to hold their elected officials accountable. This requires an informed population, one that not only knows who they are voting for but why.
As college students, we have access to resources that most Americans do not. These resources can and should be used not just in the pursuit of a degree but in the pursuit of better citizenship. Being informed matters now more than ever. After all, the populist arm of the GOP has not been winning over voters by offering hard data or sincere approaches to governance; they’ve done it by flooding the discourse with misinformation and lies designed to provoke anger. An uninformed — or worse, misinformed — population opens the space for populist extremists to act in bad faith, co-opt our political system and use it for their own gain.
I am not suggesting here that engaging with politics means watching more news. In fact, television news has contributed to the disintegration of our public discourse perhaps more than any other medium. Consider what Neil Postman, in his seminal 1984 work, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, says when discussing TV news:
“I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world," Postman wrote. "I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”
Postman’s prescient comments hint at where we are heading in a nation where every night, nearly 4.5 million people sit down to watch Tucker Carlson. Of course, left-leaning media is not free from blame here either, so seek out multiple sources and vet those sources rigorously. Opinion shows such as Carlson’s or The Rachel Maddow Show might be the most entertaining but they are not the best sources of accurate, actionable information.
3. If young people don’t vote, the direction of the country will continue to be determined by older voters.
Older Americans are currently deciding the future for younger Americans.
In the 2016 presidential election, less than half of citizens ages 18 to 29 voted, while 71% of those 65 years and older turned out. The current average age of senators is 64. In the House, it’s 58. If you feel as though politics rarely reflects the issues that you care about, this helps explain that.
It is understandable to believe that one voice cannot make a difference, but young people, if they participate on a large enough scale, can begin to bring about change. In order to demand that our leaders and representatives are addressing issues that affect our lives, we must be engaged, at least around election time. That engagement starts with educating yourself on the candidates and the issues and continues after the polls have closed.
The upcoming election on Nov. 8 is important. Its implications will stretch into all areas of our lives. I urge you that the next time you find yourself wondering about the state of the world or getting annoyed at that friend who won’t shut up about politics, to remember these three points and consider joining the conversation rather than avoiding it.
— Nathan Leakway is a sophomore majoring in Professional Writing at the York College of Pennsylvania.