by Kjerstin Thorson
It is all the rage (well, in some circles) to assert that youth today are disengaged from conventional forms of political participation, the kinds that aim to influence national governments in traditional ways (read this, for example, or this). And there’s good reason. Voter turnout rates for 18-29 year-olds lag well behind those of older adults, youth are less likely to report being “regular” voters, and they are virtually absent from local-level elections (lots on that here). But worries about the vote have to grapple with recent events: Turnout gaps have been smaller in national elections since 2004. In fact, turnout among 18-29 year olds was higher in 2008 than in all but two of the previous ten presidential elections.
In the run-up to the 2012 election, politics-watchers confidently announced the youth vote would not return. Journalists and op-ed writers wondered whether Gen Y would “just stay home,” and predicted the “tidal wave of enthusiasm among young voters that fueled President Obama’s 2008 run has long since receded.”
But then there they were. Twenty three million 18-29 year olds voted in 2012—50 percent of those eligible. It’s a number still low in comparison to normative hopes and dreams, but 50 percent is equal to 2008, and way way better than the particularly awful years (shudder: 1996, 2000). CIRCLE director Peter Levine described the turnout rate as “confounding almost all predictions.”
As a scholar and a person who is interested in and mostly very excited about alternative, non-conventional, non-voting forms of participation—protest, politically minded consumption, movements linked to personal lifestyles, and so on—voting is a bit of a sticky wicket. Do I think all our best efforts in civic education should be spent on nonpartisan get out the vote efforts? Not really. Non-voters, yeah, I can see why you would stay away. You ignore politics? Think politics are awful or boring or all around too complicated to bother with? I get that entirely.
But you should vote. I see why you don’t. But do it anyway. Really, I’m an old-fashioned civics nerd. I brought my three-year-old daughter to our polling place, in an ice rink (possibly the coldest our California kid has ever been), I get choked up at States of the Union and Inaugural Addresses, I often believe what I read in the newspaper and think that a lot of politicians would do something about climate change if the way we do things hadn’t gotten so messed up.
So the self-debating part of me, the part that’s sure voting and elections are receiving too much attention in the scholarly gaze at the expense of other ways of being political but is also worried about the long-term sustainability of democratic life, that part of me is thrilled at the little moments when civic duty and the amazing potential of digital media to enable networked political expression come together. Cake and eating it too. And that happened this election day as I followed the Twitter hashtag #firsttimevoter*, looking at the pictures and reading the sometimes earnest, sometimes goofball, always a bit fantastic posts. In honor of civic nerds everywhere, let’s take a little break from worrying about the future to enjoy scenes from #firsttimevoter. It’s a tiny bit of happy for the crankiest, most pessimistic among us. Save some of it up for the next time you’re tempted to bemoan the #awfulness of Gen Y.
I collected 7,086 tweets tagged with #firsttime voter between midday on election day through the evening of the day following. Of these, 33 percent (2,383) tweets contained a link—nearly all (93 percent, 2,224) to a photo on instagram. Here’s a word cloud.
A lot of Obama voters here—the word “Obama” was mentioned 2,773 times , compared with only 319 mentions of “Romney.” “Proud” was mentioned 504 times, “feel” 519 times (“@xokatlyn Feeling really cool right now #firsttimevoter #RomneyRyan2012 http://t.co/RfUKLcq4” and “@adecory9 Not gonna lie I totally feel pretty bad ass with this sticker #firsttimevoter”’) (actually, the sticker got 252 mentions, e.g., @ShelbyAnnXoxo: rockin the ‘I Voted’ sticker on the back of the iPhone #canigetanycooler #firsttimevoter).
The word awesome appears 43 times (this includes one use of “awesomeness,” by @Steph_aniee5), “yay” is there 148 times (from @leeanne_moses, “Yay! @BarackObama so proud of America right now! #probama #firsttimevoter #sohappy”) and “happy” 229 times (“@xoxo_Tynii_xoxo #FirstTimeVoter #Nov6 #Obama #Election Day #Happy #iVOTED <3 First time voter & I loved It (History)”
*The hashtag was promoted by the Huffington Post here – are more pictures there if you need a bigger fix.)