Voting Crucial and Necessary for Young Americans, Reminds Rutgers–Camden Scholar

By Tom McLaughlin

Voting, says Dan Hart, is both a crucial affirmation of democracy and a necessary responsibility for promoting one’s interests.

Hart warns that when young people fail to vote in all elections, the goals that are of critical importance for this population are ignored.

The Rutgers University–Camden scholar warns that when young people fail to vote in all elections – whether it be school board, municipal, state, or federal – then the goals that are of critical importance for this population are ignored.

“If young people believe that their futures are affected by educational policy, infrastructure investment, or climate change, they had better vote,” says Hart, a distinguished professor of childhood studies and psychology at Rutgers–Camden. “When they don’t, much older cohorts of Americans with different perspectives on those topics and many others will elect representatives who focus on the goals of the middle-aged and elderly.”

Hart, who co-authored the book Renewing Democracy in Young America (Oxford University Press, 2018), offers parents and educators tips to encourage young people to participate in the electoral process:

  • Voting is both a habit and a decision; promote both facets
  • Encourage registration to vote as soon as a teenager is age-eligible to do so
  • Present voting as a family event and obligation, with children accompanying their families to the voting booths
  • Discuss elections and politics at home and school
  • Join organizations that provide community-service opportunities
  • Facilitate early and absentee voting for family members away from home on voting day

The Rutgers–Camden scholar recommends promoting voting both as a habit and a decision.

Hart and co-author James Youniss, the James R. and Wylma R. Curtin Professor of Psychology at The Catholic University of America, charted the course for engaging the next generation of capable, civically responsible youth in Renewing Democracy in America.

The researchers posit that youth aren’t idle, disaffected bystanders, but rather hold the key to solving the problems of contemporary American society. Rather than “magically” waiting to elect more effective leaders, they maintain that more capable citizens are required – and we need to look no further than today’s youth to find them.

“We argue that, if we want better citizens, then we must give young people the opportunities that they need to get involved and succeed,” says Hart.

Hart and Youniss note that youth exhibit the wide range of skill sets, cultural perspectives, and educational experiences that prepare them to contribute to society. In addition, they argue, there is much evidence showing that today’s youth, including those from ethnic minority and low-wealth populations, are open to new learning opportunities that have lasting positive benefits.

“In taking all of these data into account, we conclude that cultivating better citizens is a very attainable goal,” says Hart.

Hart and co-author James Youniss chart the course for engaging the next generation of capable, civically responsible youth in their recent book.

To effect change, the researchers argue, begins by making a change. They explain that the current methods used in schools to inculcate civic knowledge are ineffective, requiring clearer goals to be set and new strategies to be employed. Civic education, they posit, requires much more than transferring knowledge; it demands opportunities that encourage youth to get involved.

Among ideas proposed by the authors, they explore the benefits of lowering the voting age for municipal elections to 16. Hart and Youniss present new research indicating that 16- and 17-year-olds have the requisite qualities – civic knowledge, attitudes, and participation – necessary to vote responsibly, and that allowing young people to vote in municipal elections will deepen commitment to democracy.

“Trust in American democratic institutions is at a record low, growing political polarization is paralyzing federal government, and traditional institutions that provide entry into civic life are disappearing,” says Hart. “We can respond to these worrying trends, and rejuvenate American democracy, by providing young people with genuine opportunities to participate in civic and political life.”

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