The long-winded and winding primary for the Republican party’s presidential nominee has all but come to a close. Despite the flashing parade-like rise and fall political characters, few are surprised that Mitt Romney will challenge Barack Obama for the White House this November. Furthermore, there seems to be consistent agreement on what the major topics for debate and contention are in the months ahead. Campaign ads and election news cycles will ensure we don’t forget about our gridlocked political system and still-ailing economy.
If the coverage of an election in the media has its roots in the personal lives and sound-bites of our leaders then it feels like a big part of democracy is not being taken seriously—the needs of voters. Mainstream election-cycle coverage dilutes the well of useful information available to voters with too much triviality. Insufficient and superficial coverage of political campaigns alienates voters from active and vocal participation in the political process. Political gossip breeds little other than an empty banter humming in our cars and living rooms. Does this help explain why 43% of the Voting Age Population (VAP) did not vote in 2008 and furthermore why 28% of the VAP is not even registered to vote?
Shrinking voter participation rates since the Sixties are a result of factors greater than mainstream media outlets’ misrepresentation of political dialogue and its implications (i.e. why is low voter turnout not a pressing news topic). A convincing argument can be made that poor voter turnout occurs, because voters do not believe that they have a stake in the political process and that voting will not affect their lives.
The most distressing element of this argument is its affect on young voters. Not only do they have the most remaining years to vote, but they are also tomorrow’s leaders and politicians in our communities and nationally. Young voter turnout rates declined steadily from 1972 onward but then began to climb in 2004. They surged even higher in 2008 due to an exciting political dynamic, but even more so to substantial "get out the vote" and voter registration drives.
Advancements in communication and Internet technology also harnessed young voters’ attention and better engaged them in the voting process than traditional media outlets. In this November’s election digital and social media will be utilized even more to reach voters as the social landscape of our communities has evolved.
When viewing recent voter participation trends and exploring means to increase voter turnout, perhaps the best wisdom comes from the past. Our nation’s third President (and the Father of University of Virginia) Thomas Jefferson wrote that the surest safeguard of our democracy is “the diffusion of knowledge among the people.” The hope that an educated citizenry would be an active, caring one serves today as a pointer of how we can not only engage more voters but also how communities can produce young people who value participatory democracy.
Every four years political analysts and reporters proclaim that the presidential election will make or break a cause. This is the year for women. This is the year for Christians. This is the year that the ultimate fate of our country will be decided. But maybe the real concern communities and voters should have is making sure their voices are heard and that leaders will address their needs. Voting is an individual’s role in holding leadership accountable—but it’s more than that. To vote is to have a stake in our communities’ future. Practicing democracy now helps secure the ability to strengthen our communities and society for generations tomorrow.
Guest Contributor: Clay Kerchof