Political pundits think that the election Nov. 8 will be extremely tight. As I write this, Republican Jerry Kilgore and Democrat Tim Kaine are running neck-and-neck. Last week's Richmond Times-Dispatch poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research shows a statistically insignificant Kilgore lead of 44 percent to 42 percent. Independent candidate Russell Potts had dipped to 5 percent, and 9 percent of voters were undecided.
In a race as close as this one, every vote will make a difference, especially considering the low turnout rates that off-year elections like this one typically get.
So, what's different this year? And why do we care? Several nonpartisan organizations are working very hard to register and mobilize a new constituency in Virginia: young people, just like me.
In 2004, 18- to 24-year-old voters were a force at the voting booth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, turnout among young people increased 11 percentage points above the 2000 election, and more than doubled the turnout increase of all other age groups (which only increased by 4 percentage points). Efforts like those of the Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) New Voters Project are helping to organize students on my campus at Virginia Commonwealth University, to show that young people's impressive turnout in 2004 wasn't just a statistical blip it was the beginning of an important electoral trend.
Consider this: $4 billion was pumped into the political economy in 2004. Of that cash a mere $50 million was used to target young people. With a leap in turnout of 11 percent, we proved to be a worthy investment.
My generation is coming into its own politically. We're different from the Generation Xers. Studies by Harvard University, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) and others have shown that my generation, Generation Y, is more likely to do volunteer work and to be involved in their communities. We don't fit neatly into Republican and Democrat "boxes"; nor do we identify solely as liberal or conservative. We're up for grabs, open to listen to those politicians who actively seek our support. Just like any other group of people (whether senior citizens or soccer moms), the candidate who talks about our issues, visits our campuses and makes an effort to understand who we are and what we care about has a better chance to motivate us and win our support on Election Day. It's that simple.
I'm working with other student volunteers at VCU to make this year's candidates pay attention to us. We've built a strong youth-vote coalition on campus and are helping students who've already registered in their hometowns to vote by absentee ballot. We're planning to run a big "get-out-the-vote" operation in the days leading up to Election Day, when we'll make hundreds of phone calls reminding our friends to vote, go door-to-door in the dorms, and even drive people to the polls. At VCU our goal is to mobilize 1,300 students.
And we're only one campus of many. Students at other universities are working just as hard as we are to mobilize students in their own communities.
There's a lot for young people to care about this year. We've heard the candidates go back and forth about transportation plans and gas taxes, but what about the issues we really care about? Like the growing gap between rising tuitions and falling financial-aid funding a huge problem that's pricing too many of us out of a college education. Or the fledgling job market for recent college graduates? Or the lack of affordable health care?
Unfortunately, Virginia falls in the bottom fifth of states when it comes to young voter participation. And according to the Virginia State Board of Elections, 3.98 percent of the state's 4.4 million registered voters cast a ballot in the Republican gubernatorial primary in June (Democrats did not hold a gubernatorial primary). It'd be easy, and probably understandable, to throw up our hands and say, "No one cares!" But I think these numbers represent an opportunity for change and improvement. Because the governor's race is so close this year, even a small increase in young people's turnout could have a significant impact on the results of this election.
Next week is the first election in which I'll be old enough to vote. I'm doing my part to talk it up with my friends and to engage as many people as I can on campus. Will the candidates do their part to engage me? SKrystle Dullas, 18, is a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University. Cloe Axelson works with the Student PIRG New Voters Project.
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