Our Voice: Lack of interest by young voters a concerning trend

It is a shame so many young people failed to vote in the election last November.

It is also concerning. While voter turnout statewide was low and disappointing at 51.2 percent overall, the numbers provided by the Secretary of State’s office show an alarming discrepancy between the number of seniors who voted compared with those who are younger.

Benton County had the same percentage breakdown as the state, with 69 percent of people 65 and older casting a ballot compared with 13 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds. In Franklin County, 62 percent of people 65 and older voted compared with 9 percent of younger voters.

Such a wide generational gap is disconcerting, and we can’t help but wonder if the indifference demonstrated by these younger voters will continue as they age. We could hope that as they become older they will eventually realize the importance of becoming a well-informed voter. But we should not count on that. We need to do something more than hope.

Getting young people to register to vote is a start. According to The Voter Participation Center in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization, 41 percent of people ages 18 to 29 who are eligible were not registered to vote as of 2012. They represented 31 percent of all unregistered citizens nationwide.

In Franklin County, 41 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have signed up to vote, and in Benton County, 57 percent of that same age group have registered.

Franklin County has been pushing voter registration during the past several years, and in fact, won the Secretary of State’s Voter Outreach Award in 2013, after increasing voter registration by 24 percent between 2008-12.

The county also has provided posters to be used in high school classrooms, which allows students to register to vote by scanning a code on the poster and using their smartphones.

This effort to encourage voter registration is commendable. But sometime after these young people register is when most of them lose interest. The excitement of finally being old enough to vote wanes and they ignore the privilege.

More must be done to engage this untapped group, and state election officials have suggested much of that is up to the candidates and the political parties.

It helped that the Franklin County Auditor’s Office worked with Chiawana High School to set up a student-run debate between congressional candidates Dan Newhouse and Clint Didier before last November’s election. This was a way of bringing politics to the students, which should happen more often.

There needs to be continuous encouragement in the schools and at home so that teens get excited about being able to cast a ballot. After that, they need to believe the process is relevant to their lives.

People have a tendency to take care of the things that matter to them. Somehow we need to find a way for young people to believe their vote matters.