Senior Nicholas Muller is 18. With those two digits, the doors to a whole new world of privileges open up to him—including the right to vote. But just 40 years ago, 18-year-olds like Muller did not have that opportunity. It was not until July 1, 1971, when President Richard Nixon signed a single but significant document, that suffrage was granted 18-year-old citizens in the United States. It was the 26th Amendment, the next to last amendment added to the Constitution. Now, 40 years later, in a world of Facebook and iPhones, Muller said he plans to take advantage of this right by voting in the upcoming 2012 election.
“I feel that it’s part of one’s civic duty to vote,” Muller said. “It’s important to stay active in politics. Basically, (voting’s) an important part of participating in a democracy because if no one did it, there wouldn’t be a democracy. And it’s fun. It’s interesting.”
Although Muller said he plans to use his 40-year-old right to vote, his age demographic group of 18- to 29-year-olds has the lowest voting turnout rate out of all other eligible age groups. According to a turnout estimate of the midterm elections in 2010 by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), an organization that collects data on the political involvement of young Americans, only 24 percent of all eligible young people from ages 18 to 29 voted—the lowest turnout percentage.
According to AP Government teacher James Ziegler, one of the main reasons for this inadequate interest by young people is the lack of knowledge about the issues at hand.
“Naturally, the more knowledgeable you are on a topic, the more likely you are to participate or partake in it,” Ziegler said. “The same thing is true with voting as well, I think. If you (have) more issues that you understand, the more likely you are to vote. Because why don’t people vote? A lot of people don’t vote because they don’t know the difference between the candidates or between the issues.”
Ziegler, however, said he believes more students at this school will vote than 18-year-olds in other areas, mainly due to factors such as socioeconomic status and education.
“A correlation in voting trends is that a lot of times the more educated you are, the more likely it is that that individual’s going to vote,” Ziegler said. “And so socioeconomic status, which combines education along with occupation and wealth and things like that, is also an indicator of likelihood of somebody to vote. Since Carmel is a little bit of a wealthy area, and it is also a very good school academically, I think 18-year-olds from Carmel High School are probably a little more likely to vote than maybe 18-year-olds from an inner city school that’s struggling to get by that doesn’t have necessarily a strong vote program in place.”
According to Muller, whether 18-year-old students will vote or have interest in politics varies depending on the student. Muller, who takes AP Government, also said Carmel High School’s social studies programs guided him, in part, to begin an interest in politics.
“I feel like a lot of people who are taking social studies classes are more active and interested (in politics) than others,” Muller said. “I feel like a lot of the social studies teachers in Carmel are really good at keeping students interested in politics.”
According to Muller, historical and political discussions in his AP U.S. History class last year and AP Government class this year have influenced his political interest. Muller also said he cites the significance of the 26th Amendment and the lowering of the age limit as factors in voting.
“With the knowledge that I will be able to vote just in the next year’s election, it gives more incentive to actually stay interested and informed,” Muller said, “because if I could only vote if I was 21 like it was before (the 26th Amendment), I probably wouldn’t be looking into this stuff in high school. I would rather wait until probably college. (Considering) that the age is earlier, you have more incentive to learn about it now.”
On the other hand, Kathy Richardson, Hamilton County Election Administrator, said via email that she believes the political activeness of students’ families also plays a significant role in their decision to vote.
“I believe some (18-year-olds vote) if it is something that their family has participated in,” Richardson said. “Also, (more young people tend to vote) because it is the first time (that they are voting), and especially if your first time is during a presidential year when there is so much media attention.”
Likewise, Ziegler said he believes family influences the student’s political activity or stance in politics. According to Ziegler, who said he was politically active as an 18-year-old, peers determine one’s political activeness and interest as well.
“I had a lot of older siblings who were also very involved in politics. I mean, it’s something we’re passionate about. A lot of them were history majors or political science majors,” Ziegler said. “From a political socialization standpoint, family plays a big role in determining whether or not you will become kind of actively involved in politics, which is natural, family and your different pair groups. So when I was in high school, I definitely ended up being pretty active. Even at the lunch table a lot of times, (my friends and I) would have political discussions.”
Although some of his peers show interest in politics, Muller said most of them do not, in accordance with recent statistics.
“There’s quite a few friends that I’ll discuss political things with at lunch or outside of school, although some of them don’t care,” Muller said.
For senior Daniel Eads, who also said he will vote in the 2012 general election, the distance 18-year-olds, specifically in Carmel, feel from the political world is the main reason as to why young people choose not to vote.
“I think on a larger scale, (18-year-olds) feel a disconnect with Washington,” Eads said. “I think some kids find that or believe in that their voice isn’t really being heard by the politicians in Washington.”
Eads said he believes that many 18-year-olds hold doubts about their vote’s effect on the decisions made in politics.
Eads said, “I think they see Washington as listening to primarily the adult population and really shunning away the young voters.”
Correspondingly, AP U.S. History teacher William Ellery said he includes the lack of direct connection between the issues and young people today as one of the main reasons for indifference in 18-year-olds, as compared to 1971, when the 26th Amendment was passed and many young people voted.
According to Ellery, the 26th Amendment had resulted from a number of issues. Most of them included the anti-war protests against the Vietnam War and the military conscription of 18-year-olds, who could not vote because the age limit was 21. Much of the issues, Ellery said, represented a struggle of states’ rights versus the government’s powers. With the lack of consistency among the states, the federal government felt the need to step in and establish a common principle among all the states.
“Because, really, the idea then (in 1971) was, if you’re 18 years old and you’re old enough for your country to demand that you be available to take a bullet for us, then you should also be able to have a say in that,” Ellery said. “And that’s why that change was necessitated. There are a lot of issues now, but (the issues back then) were specific to young people, and it was affecting their lives with both respect to the draft and with respect to them having a vote on that draft.”
Ellery said the political issues in America today also differ from those of 1971 in regards to the general appeal and message of the issues.
“The issues we’re facing now—for example, this Occupy Wall Street one—have a very unclear agenda other than forgiveness of student debt. It still tends to pull in a younger crowd, but without a clear agenda, it’s not going to have mass appeal,” Ellery said.
Despite the government’s lack of appeal or connection to the young generation, Muller said he believes 18-year-olds should attempt to increase their participation in politics.
“More people should be involved,” Muller said. “Obviously there’s not really a connection now. Young people today don’t have much of an event like (the war in) Vietnam. I think in the past it was probably more important for people to get suffrage at 18, so it seems less important now, I guess, but it’s still important.”
To Eads, voting as an 18-year-old not only impacts the United States and the world but also represents part of fulfilling one’s citizenship and adulthood.
“I think it really is a rite of passage,” Eads said. “It’s an age where you have the ability to join the military, to join the workforce and (earn) full-time employment. (Once) you leave high school, you’re really a full citizen, so you should therefore be allowed the right to vote and have an influence on your own future in that regard.”
While most of the students who participate in government vote solely in the presidential election, eligible voters should also participate in local elections, according to Richardson.
“Many times at the local elections, the turnout is much less, and these are the people who affect your daily life, such as a mayor or city council or the school board,” Richardson said. “Many have lost their lives for us to have this freedom to vote, and it is the absolute least we can do to thank them and be involved in our community, state and country.”
In the same manner, Ziegler said he urges his students in class to vote for similar reasons.
“I encourage students to vote because if you don’t vote, then you don’t have a voice,” Ziegler said. “You know, a lot of policies in our country are geared towards the older population. Why? Well, because those are the people that are voting. Politicians and members of the Congress aren’t going to pay attention to people that are 18 years old because they’re not the people that they’re counting on for the votes.”
Ziegler said he believes that with more participation in government, 18-year-olds and the young age group will see more favorable policies directed towards them.
“If more and more youths were able to get out and vote, we would have probably more policies that are more responsive to what the younger generations want,” Ziegler said, “which we, in some instances, I don’t think we’ve really seen what our younger generations truly wanted enacted, just based on conversations I hear in class. And so if you want your voice to be heard, then you need to go out and vote and show these politicians that (you) are a voting bloc that does matter and that can influence elections. If you don’t vote, you can’t really complain about it.”
For the students who are currently ineligible to vote, Ziegler said he encourages them to educate and inform themselves on political issues, situations and current events.
“You can get access to the New York Times with a click of a button now. You can get access to the Wall Street Journal with a click of a button now. So there’s no reason now not to vote or not familiarize yourself with the issues. It’s just a matter of getting access to it and actually learning it,” Ziegler said.
Muller also said he believes increasing political awareness and knowledge is important.
“I remember in the 2008 election, I was an Obama supporter but I was just kind of like that in name,” he said. “I didn’t really look too much into the details of it. I was just like, ‘Yeah, Obama. Go, Obama.’ But now I feel like I know more of the issues, and I also understand how the process works, like the primaries and the general election.”
From Eads’ perspective, the impact of 18-year-olds’ participation in government is crucial to not only his future but also to the future of other Americans.
“I believe myself and my friends believe that we do really have an impact,” Eads said. “You know, a single vote may not have a huge significance, but when you bring multiple people together with similar core values and beliefs and put them in America’s political system, great things can happen.”