Ever since younger Americans were granted the vote in 1972, voter turnout among those 25 and under has dropped at a much faster rate than among the overall population. In fact, 52 percent of that age group voted in 1972; only 37 percent in the 2000 elections.
Those between 18 and 30 represent a big voting block in the US - 25 percent of the electorate. Think of the difference in policymaking those voting young people could generate: Instead of a prescription-drug benefit, politicians might pay more attention to the soaring costs of college.
Oddly, though, when it comes to civic participation other than voting, young people perform admirably as activists of all stripes, according to a newly released Carnegie Corporation study. They volunteer in record numbers and take on many causes.
Explaining the disparity between such vibrant civic participation and not voting isn't easy, but two big factors, experts say, are a general decline in teaching civics, and politicians ignoring the youth vote.
In many schools, civics classes have been relegated to a senior-year elective, not a core requirement. But there's a twist: Many schools that have reinvigorated civics classes are finding ways to show students how they can make a difference.
Last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, a former US education secretary, introduced a bill calling for more civics education. That's an idea worth pursuing.
Unfortunately, candidates don't focus on young people because they know most don't vote. In fact, 64 percent of TV campaign ads in the last presidential election were placed in shows viewed by older adults, compared to 14 percent for younger audiences. Studies show young people tend to vote for more-independent candidates, such as Ross Perot (youth turnout was up in the 1992 election involving him), John McCain, Bill Bradley, and Ralph Nader. Those candidates avoided highly personal, negative ads. They also were seen as outside the political "norm."
Could there be a lesson here? "They're [youth voters] rejecting traditional political processes as a way to achieve social and political change," says Alison Fields, creative director of Rock the Vote and principal author of the Carnegie study.
At the same time, young people must recognize voting as fundamental to democracy and insist that candidates listen to their concerns.