May 2016 Annual Meeting
Lee Forbes welcomed the thirty-plus League members and guests, who included several high school students, five women from the Lawrence League, and Jesse Burns, Executive Director of the LWV of New Jersey. Members voted to approve the Princeton League positions, the budget, and the leadership committee. Lee thanked Sheila Berkelhammer for her service as the League representative on the board of Princeton Community Housing. Elizabeth Bidwell Bates will be taking Sheila's place.
Ingrid Reed introduced the speaker, Dr. Elizabeth Matto, Assistant Research Professor, Eagleton Institute of Politics, and Director of the Institute’s Youth Political Participation Program. In keeping with the title of Dr. Matto's speech, “Engaging Young People in Politics and Voting: An Upbeat Report,” Ingrid paid tribute to the next generation by introducing the students in the audience and commending Jesse Burns for the League's initiative, the Young People's Network.
Dr. Matto began by describing Millennials, the generation born after 1980, with whom she works at Rutgers. Millennials are the largest and most ethnically diverse generation, educated but bearing economic hardships such as student debt and bleak employment opportunities. They are digital natives, optimistic and eager to make things better, but frustrated by bureaucracy. They have little loyalty to established organizations such as religion or political parties. Instead they initiate and volunteer in movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and even Bring Back Our Girls.
The political participation of Millennials is unreliable. Fifty-two percent voted in 2008, 46% in 2012, and far fewer in 2014. Dr. Matto reports that this year, however, they're interested. At Rutgers, they gathered to watch the primary debates, and, nationally, their voter turnout has been high. Two million young adults in the 17-29 age-range voted for Sanders, 747,000 for Trump, and 727,000 for Clinton. Asked whether they would switch from Sanders to Clinton, 65% said they would; 29% said they would either sit home or vote for Trump.
The challenge for Dr. Matto (and for Hillary Clinton) is to increase the participation of young adults in the political process. They find the current electoral structure cumbersome. Registration forms that must be printed and mailed and that must be updated yearly as students change dormitories, closed primaries, and hard-to-find polling places lead to college students not voting. They ask “Why not vote online?” Dr. Matto leads RU Ready, RU Voting, and RU Running – programs designed to involve young adults in the political process. She points out that civics classes in schools, if offered at all, tend to disregard the skills needed to be a citizen and that the problem is greater in poorer schools. At New Brunswick High School, for example, the student government is weak, current events plays a minor role, and there's little money for funding an after-school debate club. RU Ready tries to address the problem at the high school level, while RU Voting helps Rutgers students with the registration process. RU Running provides a model for potential candidates for office, and Dr. Matto believes that the Millenials are a generation that should run for office.
Dr. Matto concluded by saying that knowing how to be a citizen is not inborn; it must be taught. She tells her students “Politics matters to you and you matter to politics.”