VOICES: May youthful enthusiasm lead you to the polls. Democracy needs all of us.

This guest opinion column by Noreen Willhelm, a senior fellow with The Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative, will appeared on the Ideas and Voices page Tuesday, Nov. 3. An editorial and other columns related to the election are linked below.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

I registered to vote when I was 17 years old.

Under the newly ratified 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which lowered the voting age from 21, you could register and vote in the primary, if you were going to be 18 by election day.

I couldn’t have been more excited. This probably says something about the nerd in me, but I spent my 18th birthday, a week or so before the 1972 presidential election, convinced I was going to be hit by a car and killed, because surely something was going to keep me from voting!

Years later, as a young reporter for the Dayton Daily News, I interviewed Ohio Representative C.J. McLin Jr., in the basement of his funeral home on Germantown Street. I was excited and proud to learn that this powerful political leader shared my passion for voting. He said he wished young people had the same excitement for their first vote as they did about being old enough to drive. Yes! That’s how I felt and hoped others did, too.

This year, I’m encouraged by the reports of increased registration and early voting among young people across the country. Whatever is motivating them, it is an important transfusion of energy into our seemingly moribund democracy. After voter participation peaked at 81.8% in the 1860 presidential election, according to the United States Election Project, we’ve averaged just 62% in presidential elections ever since. Worse, participation in mid-term or off-year elections has averaged about 41% since 1960.

We blame apathy, discouragement, or unhappiness with the pick of candidates. On a personal level, we claim we’re busy, we couldn’t get there, don’t have time.

The Pew Research Center says while the principles that comprise liberal democracy – fair judiciary, free speech and free press, regular elections – have strong support worldwide, commitment to democracy can be weak. That stems from disappointment in political leaders and institutions and a sense of not being heard.

But young people this year will bring energy and enthusiasm and, I hope, expectations to the polls. Expectations for politicians and policy. Expectations of themselves and others. And an understanding that democracy needs all of us to participate in order to flourish, not just survive.

Noreen Willhelm is a former food server, journalist, nonprofit director, community organizer, and sometime-farmer. She is the senior fellow with The Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative, working with incredibly talented, formerly retired, older adults.

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