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Young and - Not - Political

by Christa Wagner

November 3,2004

Election fever began early this year, especially at my office. I work for the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s largest grassroots environmental advocacy organizations, where election forecasts are as routine as checking out I briefly left the Sierra Club to work for a North Carolina candidate in a US Senate campaign and got a sense to what extent Charlotte’s generation X and Y are politically motivated.

On the Wednesday before the election, we went to stand on the corner of Kings and Third Street to conduct a “honk poll” opposite staff members from the other campaign. Support was measured by car horns and thumbs up, with each team boasting their score to the others across the street. The light-hearted spirit of this trench warfare inspired a reach across the aisle. A young staffer from the other campaign left her more senior comrades and joined us, opponent’s sign in hand. But instead of arguing about the election, we talked about growing up in Charlotte and who we knew in common.

On that afternoon I learned that, like the World War I soldiers who left the trenches without orders to play soccer on Christmas Day, 1914, the other side was human too. There could only be one winner on Election Day, but if our side lost at least we knew that some on the other side had a great band play at their prom.

How much did this election matter to people of my generation? Michael Moore would have you think that students were giving up college over it, but it was dismally insignificant to Charlotte youth. As I went around college campuses to gather recruits, it became increasingly difficult to find motivated (and responsible) volunteers for the Senate campaign I was working on.

I began at Queens College, where I met with fifteen women. I was surprised and pleased that women dominated the student political group. I also spent several days recruiting volunteers and encouraging students to vote at the early polling place at UNC Charlotte. In the first week of early voting, UNC Charlotte had the lowest turnout of any of the polling places, which seems unusual for the largest college campus in the region. Somehow, John Kerry and George Bush failed to inspire them.

At Davidson College, students staged debates, put on a play that involved reading letters to President Bush and held regular meetings for the Young Republicans and Young Democrats. Still, the faithful were in short supply.

On Halloween, I made a last ditch effort to dredge up volunteers at a local bar, between rollicking sets of Sea Ray and Gogo Pilot. While the band was willing to tape my candidate’s mug shot to their keyboard, no young volunteers were to be found.

On the Saturday before the election, we trolled apartment complexes and other havens of presumably fired-up young voters, but these locations were invariably full of outdated registrations from people who moved away.

In Mecklenburg and elsewhere around the country, campaigns can barely reach the mobile, rootless population of young people. Americans aged 18-24 had the lowest voter turnout in the 2000 election of any age group. Despite high expectations, that statistic hardly improved in the 2004 election.

After the polls closed on the Big Day, I stopped by an election night party at the Visulite, the hipster hangout in Charlotte’s rapidly revitalizing Elizabeth neighborhood. Elizabeth was also the site of the Great Pumpkin Wall, a community collaboration of politically suggestive pumpkins that stood 12 feet high and 40 feet long in front of a brown bungalow on Lamar Avenue. The New York Times reported the story. The Charlotte Observer followed several days later. I like to think we’re not lagging behind in this part of the world, but it’s hard to tell.

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