Five years ago we beat the odds and made our voices heard. The 18-29 voting demographic attracted attention in 2008 for being a deciding factor in propelling Barack Obama to victory over John McCain. Often derided as apathetic and insignificant, the young adult population deserves attention this fall in North Carolina local elections — for another reason.
The North Carolina legislature has been awash with criticism this summer for its bills that appear to run against the progressive streak often found in North Carolina politics. Senate Bill 667, however, is understandably all but ignored amidst the recent news of abortion measures and cuts to public education. The bill, called “Equalize Voter Rights,” removes the tax deduction for dependents that register to vote at an address other than their parents’ home.
As a North Carolina native, I know firsthand the limitations this places on college students across the state. Why should a student at Boone’s Appalachian State University be compelled to drive across the state to Nash County in the east, simply to cast their ballot? Why should a student from Clay County’s Hayesville spend four years in Chapel Hill but not be allowed to vote for those deciding the issues of their adopted home?
Our electoral experiment works best when all age groups are equally involved and given equal opportunity to impact the course of state politics. While a young voter will be engaged in an uncertain ideological dialogue when beginning to enter the public sphere, a community is better for encouraging it. As the municipal campaign season reaches its peak of activity, local residents should take the opportunity to encourage young voting. In 1972, immediately following the passage of the 26th Amendment that lowered the voting age to 18, young adult voting turnout reached its all-time high. Through the 1980s and 1990s, voting rates of the age group decreased nearly every year, causing difficulty for both Democrats and Republicans alike. The past decade overturned the pattern. With the libertarian allure of Ron Paul, the grassroots momentum of the Occupy Movement, and the social media outreach of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, the youngest voting bloc once again made its way to the polls in high numbers. At the same time, the age group surprised its parents with an excitement for the public sphere that was unprecedented in recent years.
Will the trend continue through 2014? The answer is uncertain. While many candidates have assumed the demographic will go to the polls at 2012 levels, campus activists in North Carolina are left wondering whether the state legislature will even allow them to vote in the first place.
As we move forward, North Carolina has a major public challenge — the power to model young civic engagement at a significant level, even when students are faced with every obstacle in the books. In The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, Rob Christensen contends that North Carolina oscillates between “its progressive impulses and its broad conservative streak.” North Carolina has a long history of being the progressive bastion of the Southern United States. In the last two weeks in the General Assembly has revealed the broad conservative streak that runs through the state’s political infrastructure as well. It is bills like SB 667 that value repeal over compromise and swiftness over consideration, leaving North Carolinians wondering whether the state will ever go back to being the one we used to know.