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A Present From Our 18-Year-Old Selves

The other night, Democratic candidates for president spent a bunch of time debating whether public college should be free for some people or free for all people. It was pretty remarkable.
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The other night, Democratic candidates for president spent a bunch of time debating whether public college should be free for some people or free for all people. It was pretty remarkable.

How did that happen?

It's important to flag that this shouldn't happen in an electorate where young people vote at massively lower rates than older people in most elections. Support for education funding consistently declines with age.

But this isn't just any election. This is a Democratic presidential primary and more specifically, a Democratic presidential primary that begins with the Iowa Caucuses. Anybody remember what happened last time in the Iowa caucuses?

  • Young voters made up 22 percent of the Democratic caucus goers, up from 17 percent in 2004.
  • 80 percent of the young people who caucused yesterday caucused for the Democrats.
  • The youth turnout rate more than tripled in Iowa, from 4 percent in 2004 to 13 percent in 2008.
  • 57 percent of young Democratic caucus-goers chose Obama.
  • 60 percent of caucus participants were first timers, and 39 percent of them caucused for Obama

Young voters won the election for Barack Obama in Iowa in 2008. They were the difference maker for him. And the voter file data about the electorate from the last equivalent election is what sets the rules for the next one. For folks who are around my age (mid to late 20s), a Democratic debate where the candidates talk about free public college is like a little gift our 18-year-old selves sent to our current selves when we showed up over and over again in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Don't just take it from me -- take it from Suzanne Mettler, one of the nation's leading historians on higher education. Here's what she has to say about this in "Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Inequality Sabotaged the American Dream."

Over and over again in this book, we have seen policy development in which vested interests got most of what they were after, but citizens generally were left out of the loop. One exception shows how much civic activism matters: once young people became more active in elections in 2006 and 2008, lawmakers responded to them by improving federal student aid policies.

This is all super exciting! Go us! We showed up in 2006 and 2008 and it has arguably rewritten the rules of politics (or at least Democratic politics) over the past 8 years.
But there is reason to be worried about the future. Pulling the bit from a blog post I wrote back in June on "Why Young People Should Vote" to explain why:

Politicians are not the only winners and losers on election night. There's another quieter contest going on in every election. This contest is about the makeup of the 'voter file' -- the publicly available list of every registered voter and his or her voting history. Who you vote for isn't public, but whether you vote at all is public information. The public nature of the voter file means that the other winners and losers on election night are the voters themselves.

In the contest between the voters, every single person who votes wins the election. Every voter who stays home loses.The easiest way for politicians to figure out which voters they need to care about is to look at who voted in the last election. Politicians may indeed personally care about all their constituents. But they aren't really accountable to the entire population. They're accountable to the list of people who come out to vote. So the people who vote -- especially those who vote in low turnout primaries and municipal elections -- are the real winners on every election night.
Transforming who is on that list of regular voters is the quickest way to reform our democracy. That's why it's critically important that traditionally underrepresented constituencies like young people come out and vote. This is true even if EVERY candidate on the entire ballot turns out to be uninspiring or corrupt or otherwise unappealing.

The 2008 youth turnout bump was basically candidate driven and hasn't been maintained. Youth turnout has been particularly weak -- even weaker than it was historically -- for midterm elections, non-presidential primaries and municipal elections. As a country, we're heading into a midterm election where the last two precedents -- 2010 and 2014 -- had anemic youth turnout. What's the incentive to talk about free college in the senate debates in 2018? And don't even begin to consider what it would take to get young people on the agenda in municipal elections.

So here's the deal: It's awesome that everyone is talking about free college now. The debate the other night is a little teaser, a little hors-d'oerves, the tiny spanikopita triangle taste of what the full entree of a democracy that actually works for young voters would look like. But unless we get to work and find a non-candidate driven way to increase youth turnout in ALL elections, young people are going to continue to be on the menu instead of at the table.

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