On the whole, 18 to 24-year-olds flunked the Nov. 2 exam - voting in very modest numbers. I teach English at a community college and, as a writing assignment, I asked students to set out their (nonpartisan) thoughts about voting. My reading of student papers is frequently halted by the need to make corrections, but I am rarely stopped by what is said. This time I was stopped - and stumped.
While almost every student lobbed in some pap about the importance of voting, very few actually voted. They could talk the talk, but were not sufficiently motivated to walk the walk.
They had "not gotten around to registering." Some had not made any effort to find out about registration procedures; some just didn't follow through.
• "At my high school graduation we did receive a registration card, but my summer was very hectic and I didn't get a chance to send mine in. I was unaware of the fact that on the day of voting you could go to your town hall and show your proof of residency."
• "I wasn't able to do what I had to do to register because I have no time in my schedule."
• "I lost the form."
Many rationalized that their one vote wouldn't make a difference anyway. This convenient foregone conclusion was not based on polling forecasts or Electoral College calculations. No math, just apathy.
A surprising number wrote that they didn't know enough about the candidates. After months of around-the-clock, around-the-dial campaign coverage, and after an array of get-out-the-vote efforts, such indifference was puzzling:
• "I really couldn't tell you anything about George Bush or Jon [sic] Kerry."
• "People do not have enough information to form a valid decision ... I watched the debates. They were pretty confusing and difficult to understand. A lot of things they talked about I had no clue what they were referring to."
To their credit, the students wrote with candor, and many did express remorse over their inattention, along with regret for their laziness.
Maybe some will vote in 2008, but by then there will be a new crop of recent high school graduates, and the same priorities may descend:
• "Trying to balance school, work, helping my sister take care of her newborn son, and trying to have a life, it was hard to try to sit down and either watch a debate or take the time to read what was going on in the newspaper."
I was surprised that two of my best students hadn't voted. They're in their late twenties, work full time, and attend Saturday morning classes that begin at 8:30 and run to 1 p.m.
One is a pharmacy assistant, whose brother is a marine. She wrote:
• "I work 6 days a week and go to school on the 7th. When I get home from work I have to cook, clean, help my daughter with her homework, and try to spend some quality time with her. I guess these reasons could be viewed as just excuses, maybe they are. I don't think I took the election as seriously as I should have. If I did, I suppose I would've made the time to do the research and watch the debates. I have to educate myself enough about the candidates to vote responsibly...."
The other one, a custom auto-parts manager, wrote:
• "... it's my right to choose not to vote.... It honestly doesn't matter to me at this point in my life ... each of the candidates has an equal opportunity to do something stupid. I didn't know anything about them, so I felt it would be better for informed people to decide."
I'm not for making voting easier, but I am for making people aware and better informed.
Get-out-the-vote movements have to begin now to educate 14- to 16-year-olds. And around election time, every classroom should have videos, displays, pamphlets, mockups of voting machines along with a blow-up of the local ballot. Familiarity breeds attempt.
I would hope that the attempts are considered, thoughtful. But given what I read this past week, hope is not on the way.
• Joseph H. Cooper teaches English at a community college in Connecticut.