Do young voters really care about who runs their local, state and federal government? Whatever buzz inspired younger voters to support Barack Osama in 2008 has been severely diminished by the gridlock in Washington. Voters under thirty (and the rest of us, for that matter) have witnessed nothing but conflict and partisan politics while the economy languishes and major problems go unresolved. The idealism of youth, many would argue, is being replaced by a cynicism towards those in charge, and this includes the President right down to the local level.
Recently, I sat down with a number of young people in New Orleans who are living in an upbeat, revitalized part of the city called the Warehouse District. Some of the Crescent City’s more famous restaurants along with new upscale shops and warehouses that have been turned into apartments and condos are located in this area. Similar neighborhoods, filled with young people, can be found in cities across the country.
These young people told me that they are just not that interested in politics at any level. In the 2012 election, the turnout among registered voters below 30 was a bit less than 50%. But half of all young voters have not registered. So that means a turnout of less than 25%. This was a slight drop from the 2008 election. But many young voters tell pollsters, “yes I vote, but it really won’t make much of a difference.” As one 28 year old told me in New Orleans, “Government is just not relevant to what I’m trying to do. You hear all these promises, but nothing really changes. I don’t think any politician can make a difference in my life.”
Another young man, who is developing a graphics design company, said he could sum up the problem in one word. “Engagement. There’s a disconnect because most elected officials don’t engage with the people they represent. They tell us things, they do all the talking, but they never seem to listen. We have no way to express ourselves. There is no interaction.”
Software pioneer Tim O’Reilly echoed these thoughts in an article in TechCrunch magazine, where he wrote: “Too often, we think of government as a kind of vending machine. We put in our taxes, and get out services: roads, bridges, hospitals, fire brigades, police protection…. and when the vending machine doesn't give us what we want, we protest. Our idea of citizen engagement has somehow been reduced to shaking the vending machine.”
This vending machine analogy is a good one. Not only do you often not get what you want, both the machine and government have made the decision of just what you can buy or get in the first place. You are at the mercy of the information that the system allows you to have. Oh, but you, as a citizen, have the right to access whatever information you want…right? Public records and all? A free flow of information, right? Hardly.
Freedom of information has been a hallmark of American democracy since the nation’s founding. Make the information available, and then let the public decide. But the way it should be and the way it is in practice is not always the same. In the ‘70s, when I served as a Louisiana State Senator, I authored and enacted into law what at the time was considered to be the strongest open meetings and public records legislation in the country. And today, we have the technology – the Internet, the huge online data bases, and the cloud -- that should make access to this information we need to make good decisions about our government so much easier.
But in spite of the advanced technology, little by little, particularly at the state level, questionable barriers have eroded the access to public information. High copying fees, long wait times, locked government data bases, the refusal to produce requested documents based on bogus security issues, and capricious personal decisions have thwarted the public’s right to know. Many of these obstacles are put in place by public officials wanting to conduct their business in secret. Many citizens, particularly the younger, more idealistic voters are turned off by what they see as political cynicism. They rightly feel that the information is paid for with their tax dollars, and that they have the right to see it. Too many elected officials are offering only the vending machine, where in a world of the cloud and other advanced technology, most of this information should be easily available to whoever cares to access it over the Internet.
My young voices in New Orleans were unanimous in feeling that the agenda of most bureaucrats and elected officials is to keep the status quo. One young woman put it bluntly: “Look, we’re all into networking and building businesses with new technology. Most of us see government not as a help, but as a hindrance. We just need for them to open up their information base, then just get out of the way and leave us alone.”
Another young man asked, where’s innovation, where’s the creativity in government? He quoted Einstein’s thoughts that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” “I have a number of bright, imaginative friends that are doing some really cool things and creating value,” he said. “Where’s the vision in the public sector?”
Knowing that I’d been Louisiana’s chief elections officer as Secretary of State back in the ‘80s, my group zinged me over the archaic election process, “You can do about anything on line at home, around the clock. You can text, call an 800 number to vote on American Idol. But voting? Long lines, limited time, hanging chads; why so many barriers? That’s so last century!”
What these young people are saying is that the boundaries need to come down. No more toleration of the vending machine. Make government a two way street. Let technology put many decisions -- more power of government -- in the hands of citizens. Will this inspire younger voters back into the participatory fold? Will politicians stand in the way of what they will perceive as radical change? And if they do, are we just going stand by and allow the gridlock of partisan politics and the alienation of young voters to continue?