“Hope and Change!” “Yes We Can!” The 2008 presidential election saw one of the highest youth voter turnouts in American history. Between 22 and 24 million young Americans ages 18-29 voted, resulting in an estimated voter turnout (the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast a ballot) of between 49.3 and 54.5 percent.
But four years ago, the millennial voters — those born roughly in years between 1982 and 1990 — had extremely idealistic expectations. The introduction of Presidential Candidate Barack Obama had young people ecstatic about the possibilities of what a man like him could accomplish. He was so different from previous presidential hopefuls: He was not of political pedigree. He had an international upbringing. He was not white. These characteristics were radical departures from the machine that the U.S. elections had become.
“Hope and Change” wasn’t just a slogan for the millennial voters; it was inevitable with the presidency of Obama. But what exactly were they hoping for? What exactly would be the change? When I asked young voters back in 2008, their answers were ambiguous: “This is what we’ve been waiting for.” “The best is yet to come.” “We are making history.”
Four years later, history has been made, but millennial voters are singing a completely different tune. Hope and change are no longer mentioned. Idealism has turned to realism. Now, the feelings have shifted from the exciting, “we’re in this together” moment to a pensive one, in which young people are thinking seriously about the issues that impact their lives and about which politician — President Obama or Gov. Mitt Romney — will appropriately address these issues.
In speaking with young voters during the 2012 election cycle, not one has given an ambiguous answer to the question, “Why is this election important to you?”
Take Sarah*, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying microbiology. Sarah was not eligible to vote in 2008, but that did not stop her from door knocking and phone banking to get people to the polls. In 2012, you will not find her volunteering for any campaign. But, you will find her determined to vote. Why? Because she has taken out loans to study and wants to make sure she’ll be able to repay those loans.
Then there’s Ray*, a college dropout bagging groceries at Kroger in Central Virginia. He voted for Obama in 2008 because he wanted to see a black man in the White House. Since then, a rare muscular disorder forced him to leave school. He had to get a job, any job, to survive and to put a dent in his enormous pile of medical bills. In 2012, he is tired, frustrated, and cynical about everything from education to economy. But, he is heading to the polls. Why? Because Obamacare now affords him coverage and will continue to do so despite his preexisting condition.
Finally, there is Angela* and Mary*. Angela is a nurse at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Mary, her partner, is an executive at a small, local bank. When astronaut Sally Ride passed earlier this year and her partner of 27 years was denied federal benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act, Angela and Mary started to think critically about their own situation. They have both been working for more than 15 years, and plan to continue working for many years to come. They want their social security intact, not privatized, and available to one when the other passes away in the future.
While it is sad that the excitement and energy of the 2008 election is gone, the good news is that we’ve transitioned the excited voter into the educated voter, the smart voter — the right kind of voter. Being part of the political process requires critical thinking and a strong dose of realism, and millennial voters today are definitely exhibiting both.
Fatima Ashraf is former Senior Policy Advisor on Health and Education to Mayor Michael R Bloomberg in New York City. She is currently mobilizing voters in Virginia for All Hands On Deck, a national organization committed to amplifying progressive youth voices in the political process.
This article is part of the “Election 2012 – American Muslims VOTE!” series, which is running on Altmuslim at Patheos, Altmuslimah, Illume, and Aziz Poonawalla’s news and politics blog on Patheos. Click on this special topics page to view all articles in this series and add your comments. Tweet your thoughts on this article, on the series, and on the 2012 elections at #MuslimVOTE.
*Students requested last names not be used.