Want better voter turnout? Engage the youth

It’s easy to look at Clark County’s 26-percent voter turnout for Tuesday’s primary election and come a little unglued.

We are, after all, talking about an election year during which special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the last presidential election has, so far, generated four charges against United States citizens affiliated with our president’s 2016 campaign or administration as well as against 13 Russian nationals, three Russian companies and 12 Russian intelligence officers.

It’s beyond mind-boggling to think the possibility of a stolen election and a presidency that investigative journalist Carl Bernstein, who helped bring down President Richard Nixon, recently described as “worse than Watergate,” wasn’t enough to engage more than 70 percent of Clark County voters.

And there really was no excuse for not voting this time, folks. The state even paid for your ballot postage. All voters had to do was fill in the bubbles, sign the envelope and drop it into a mailbox. Voting literally doesn’t get easier than that anywhere else in the United States, likely anywhere else in the world.

But we’re moving on from this subject for now, because 1.) the older we get, the less hair we have to pull out; 2.) most people who take the time to read local editorials are probably out there trying to “GOTV” (get out the vote) so we’re preaching to the choir here; and 3.) we want to talk about an extraordinarily positive thing that happened in local politics this week.

If you happened to attend the heated, emotionally charged public hearing for the proposed Urban Tree Program at the Camas City Council’s Aug. 6 meeting, you may have noticed quite a few young people addressing their elected officials.

One young girl even carried her baby brother on her hip as she urged city councilmembers to please, please save the trees.

And we were particularly impressed by 15-year-old Annalin King, who told councilmembers just how nerve wracking it is for young people to stand up in crowded council chambers and speak their minds.

King, who will be a sophomore at Camas High this fall, said she wished her school had a group that could focus on civic engagement and take a more active role in engaging with city leaders.

We think this is an excellent idea.

Getting younger generations engaged and excited about politics is probably the best remedy for voter apathy and one of the only things that will help build a truly representative government that focuses on basic needs like affordable health care, housing and education, living-wage jobs and stopping the devastating march of climate change.

Offering some type of civics club at local middle and high schools would be a good start. Rallying state education officials to require a full year of civics courses would be even better.

The sad fact is that most young Americans have no idea how their own government even works, much less feel inspired to engage with political leaders.

According to the most recent civics assessment administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, fewer than one-fourth of all U.S. high school seniors are proficient in civics.

These numbers have been steadily decreasing since the 1990s, so it’s no big surprise to learn that, in a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey, only one-fourth of Americans older than 18 can even name all three branches of the U.S. government. That survey also showed that fewer than one in five Americans say they trust the government and that voter participation is the lowest it has been in more than two decades.

These statistics make what happened at the Aug. 6 Camas City Council meeting — when so many young Camas residents came forward to speak passionately for the city’s trees, giving a voice to living things that have been here longer than any politician — even more extraordinary.

Kudos to those young activists and to their parents for urging them to become more involved in local politics. We hope Camas’ elected officials were listening to these passionate young folks, truly understand how rare this type of civic engagement actually is, and encourage a more open connection between city leaders and youth in Camas and Washougal.