Young Americans have more faith in the UN than Congress. More tend to volunteer or to boycott a product than to vote. Most say politics is relevant but don't go to the polls. With stats like these, it's hard to believe the youth vote on Nov. 7 may break a record.
But a survey done for Harvard University's Institute of Politics found 32 percent of 18-24-year-olds say they "definitely" plan to vote Tuesday.
If that holds true, the turnout for this age group would beat the all-time high of 26.6 percent for a midterm election, set in 1982.
The average youth turnout for the past four midterms has been 21 percent, while for those voters over 25, the average was 51 percent. That's quite a difference in voting rates to make up.
For a generation in which 93 percent don't read a newspaper and most think comedy TV news is a prime source of public information, a high turnout at the polls would be a welcome respite from youthful cynicism and their sense of powerlessness.
It might be easy to assume that young people are being driven to the polls by their concerns for hot-button issues, such as a US exit from Iraq. But in the 2004 presidential election, young voter turnout increased more than in any election since 18-to-20-year-olds won the right to vote for president in 1972.
Perhaps the US is reaping years of efforts by high schools and colleges to instill students with a sense of citizen duties and community service (or what is now called "civic engagement").
Some polls show young people are far more eager to "do good" than to get involved with politics or to vote. A survey done last spring for the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagementfound that, while 26 percent of 20-25-year-olds say they vote regularly, 36 percent have volunteered within the past year and 30 percent have boycotted a product to protest a company's actions.
That contrast between social action and political action has many experts stumped. But for political parties, the low voter rate for youth is seen as a gold mine. They have been using sophisticated campaign techniques to "get out the youth vote" – which may be a big reason for any rise in youth turnout.
Merely showing a young person the practical steps of how to register and how to vote has been shown to greatly increase participation in this most basic step of representative democracy.
But political parties have also invested millions in mobilizing young activists to reach their peers by going door to door, using the Internet, and working phone banks. Asking young people in a personal way to vote can often motivate them to do so.
States, too, should find ways to ask 18-year-olds to register, especially those not heading to college (they tend to have lower registration rates). Officials, after all, do very well in getting 18-year-old males to register for the Selective Service.
In overcoming their ignorance of the voting process, as well as of issues and candidates, young people's disregard for American democracy can be beaten back. Most tell pollsters that government should do more to solve problems. Tapping that sentiment by asking them to do their part, and showing them how, should bring them to the polls. For life.