Meet you at the place where the future gets decided

We came of age in the era of the Vietnam War. The draft snatched our friends at the age of 18. A common refrain then was: If I’m old enough to die for my country, I’m old enough to vote.

In 1972, for the first time, 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds were allowed to vote. That year, 55 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds did vote. That was the same percentage as voters of all ages.

In our opinion, every single United States citizen should vote, so 55 percent is nothing to be proud of. The percentage of young voters declined after that; just 20 percent in that age group voted in 2014. There was a surge of young voters in the last presidential election to 43 percent. That was followed by 31 percent in 2018, the highest level of youth participating in a midterm cycle in the last 25 years.

Americans, in general, are apathetic about voting; our turnout trails most other developed countries. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, only about 64 percent of the United States voting-age population (and 70 percent of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, according to the Census Bureau report, compared with 91 percent in Canada (2015) and the United Kingdom (2017), 96 percent in Sweden (2014), and 99 percent in Slovakia (2016).

If you don’t register, you can’t vote. Young people who are registered to vote turn out in high numbers. In the 2008 election, 84 percent of youth aged 18 to 29 who were registered did vote.

We have a personal interest in this because, by and large, people who read newspapers vote. Eighty-six percent of voters who cast ballots in the last local election read newspapers in print or online, with levels of engagement consistent among voters identifying as Republican, Democratic or independent, according to a 2012 Editor & Publisher study; engagement remains high even among young voters, with 79 percent reading newspapers in print or online.

With school and library elections on May 21, and primaries on June 25, our opinion pages in recent weeks have been packed with varied viewpoints from engaged citizens. We rarely get letters to the editor from young people, but last week, among 30, we got two.

One was from a 9-year-old who wishes he could vote. Henry Rivas wrote to urge those who can to approve an expanded Guilderland library. “If you are looking for a place to read or play board games, there is hardly any place to sit,” he wrote. “And also, even though I am only 9 years old, in a couple of years I’ll be a teenager and want to hang out in the teen section, but right now the teen section only has a few couches and pillows. I think teenagers need a bigger place to read or hang out and use their computers.”

We also got a letter from a University at Albany senior, Brendan Cushing, endorsing a candidate for the county legislature. Cushing, the team leader of GenVote@UAlbany, wrote: “Students and youth are the largest demographic of voters in this country, and yet we are plagued with the lowest levels of electoral participation, more so than any other demographic bloc. Why is that?”

We invited Cushing in for a podcast (online at www.AltamontEnterprise.com/podcasts) to find out more. He thinks party polarization has turned students off, and also the lack of civics classes in public schools has left students uneducated. Cushing believes, too, that youth are largely ignored by politicians, which he concedes may be because so few vote — leading to a vicious cycle.

The group Cushing is part of, Generation Voter, was founded by two Binghamton University students, millenials looking to create “a new model of engagement that disrupts the political process, empowers young people to take control of the narrative, and change the direction of our local communities” their mission statement says.

Cushing’s UAlbany team polled 700 students to find out what social and political issues they cared about and to find out what they knew about government. The students’ top priority was access to higher education, especially for low-income families, followed by addressing climate change.

“Students know little to nothing about local and state government,” Cushing said. The surveyed students, for example, didn’t know who the mayor of Albany was, or how a bill becomes law. Cushing termed this “rather frightening.”

Cushing and his team have launched a campaign on campus to register students to vote. Students don’t often sign up at tables placed in student hotspots, so the team began “dorm storming” — knocking on doors in dormitories, registration forms in hand. Cushing is elated if, after an hour of dorm-storming, he registers a single student.

UAlbany has about 14,000 undergraduates: “Four-hundred-something cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election,” which Cushing called “supercharged.” Just six students voted in the 2017 election   he said, and 57 voted in 2018, he said.

Youth Service America cites a survey from Tufts University, showing that the most frequent reason given by United States citizens ages 18 to 29 for not voting, cited by 33.5 percent, was they were too busy; the second most frequent reason, cited by 17.2 percent, was they felt their vote wouldn’t count.

Cushing’s team will make out Election Day plans for students so that they see when they have time to vote. “We go through their schedule hour by hour … Students think they are more busy than they actually may be,” said Cushing.

Recent changes in New York State’s Election Law will help. Starting in November, New Yorkers will have nine days of early voting before every election, including the two weekends before the election. This will also help ease the flow of voters on Election Day, reducing the lines and wait time.

And, as our readers are well aware, with our coverage of upcoming local primaries on June 25, New York now has a single primary, instead of two, for each election cycle.

Also, under new law, counties can now choose to use electronic pollbooks, which will further save time over the handwritten paper method, and also increase the accuracy of voter rolls. Also, New Yorkers who move to a different county no longer have to re-register to vote from their new address.

Starting in 2021, the process will become even faster as New Yorkers will then be able to register through the State Board of Elections’ website. First steps have also been taken for amending the state constitution to remove the requirement to register at least 10 days before an election, and to remove the stringent requirements for absentee voting.

Most relevant for the youth vote, starting on Jan. 1, 2020, 16- and 17-year-olds can pre-register to vote, which will automatically register them when they turn 18.

But will they? Study after study finds that voting, like charity, begins at home. So, if you’re a parent — vote, and teach your children the responsibilities that come with the privilege of living in a democracy.

Another consistent finding is that education matters. Many high schools, as Cushing noted, including his own on Long Island, have stopped teaching civics. Many surveys, including Cushing’s, show young people often don’t know how government works and therefore, don’t understand how their vote matters. College-educated citizens are more likely to vote.

One such survey, conducted by Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of CIRCLE, an initiative at Tufts University, found nearly 20 percent of working-class youth said they don’t think they know enough to be able to vote.

Cushing said, as his team was surveying UAlbany students, they asked if he was referring to elections on campus. “This is real life,” he told them.

And so it is. You — every single person of voting age — have the power to make a difference. Even 9-year-old Henry Rivas understands that and wants to vote.

This is particularly true in local elections. The political majority of the Berne Town Board was decided by one vote in the last election. Last October, a proposal for upgrading the Guilderland schools was voted down by 58 votes — only 11 percent of the 23,762 registered voters in the district bothered to vote.

Elections are coming, on May 21. Why not give a neighbor who doesn’t usually vote — or doesn’t usually read a newspaper — a ride to the polls? Share the candidate profiles we’ve run for the Voorheesville, Berne-Knox-Westerlo, and Guilderland schools as well as for the libraries in Voorheesville and Guilderland. Share the stories on school and library budgets and bond issues. It takes just a simple tap of your phone. The information is all there online, at your fingertips.

Better yet, take a whole car full of neighbors. Make a pilgrimage to the polls.

If you’re 18 or older and a United States citizen, you can vote. And you should. This is, indeed, real life; you need to make it what you want it to be.

More Editorials

  • We strongly advise all of the Westerlo Town Board members to read the Civil Service Law before breaking the law and hiring someone else for the assessor’s job. If the board still wants to remove Peter Hotaling, it must go through the state-required hearing process.

  • As we approach budget-drafting season in our towns, we urge our municipal leaders to set aside some funds for their town historians to carry on worthwhile work. 

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.