Political campaigns

Young people should be exposed to more political campaigns


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A voter approaches to scan their ballot into a new type of voting machine, first used in Kentucky’s 2022 primary election, Tuesday, May 17, 2022 at the Fairway compound in Lexington, Ky.


In recent years, young people have been instrumental in many social movements, calling Gen Z the “action generation”. But how can Generation Action live up to its name in Kentucky’s upcoming midterm elections?

The answer is simple: vote. Still, voter turnout among the state’s younger population is around 50% for general elections and 20% for primary elections. The question that remains is how can we as Kentuckians prevent low turnout among young voters in future elections. We believe that high schools in Kentucky should hold candidate debates, with town halls and others, for students and schedule time for questions from the public.

The Brookings Institute cites that Senate candidate debates are in decline. Not only are these debates dying, but even those that are taking place are inaccessible to dissenters, including many young voters, as politicians surround themselves with “campaign bubbles” of loyal supporters.

If officials and politicians are serious about engaging their youngest constituents, wouldn’t these public high school candidate debates be the best place to start? At least for us authors, it is much easier to pay attention in a live debate than in class.

Studies have highlighted the pitfalls of traditional civic education. In fact, some have objected to our current form of civic education. James Bernard Murphy, professor of government at Dartmouth College, argues that “[c]civic education aimed at civic virtue is at best ineffective; worse, it is often subversive of the moral purpose of schooling. Maybe true, but the politicians who come to see the students, face to face with their proposals in hand, would fully engage the students.

As Josh Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky Rosenberg Law School and an expert on suffrage, “young people are the cornerstone of our democracy. We must involve them fully in democratic participation. Live candidate debates seem to be one of the most comprehensive forms of democratic participation.

One of us, Zachary Clifton, is a student at Corbin High School. My message to public servants and politicians couldn’t be clearer: Winning my generation’s vote means engaging with voters my age and sympathizing with the issues that matter to us. Rather than working to engage with young voters, I believe our society has either forgotten them or chosen to drive them away.

Zachary Clifton

And the second of us, Dustyn Sams, is a law student at the University of Kentucky. I now understand how crucial my early exposure to civic engagement, outside of the classroom, was to my development as a young voter. Candidate debates in Kentucky schools could only benefit voter turnout. It could also create incentives for candidates to engage with students, as these students understand current and future electoral constituencies.

Dusty Sams

Not to neglect young voters, Generation Action votes at a higher rate than previous generations at this age. In fact, youth participation in midterm elections has been increasing for more than 50 years. Yet this should not impede progress towards 100% youth voter turnout. Many initiatives are heading in the right direction, such as the Kentucky Student Voice team which will host debates for school board candidates in Fayette and Jefferson County this year.

Young voters, both Republicans and Democrats, have the potential to shape the political landscape of the Commonwealth. For example, on June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, returning abortion decisions to the state. On Nov. 8, Commonwealth voters will decide whether abortion will be explicitly banned in Kentucky’s constitution. But it’s statistically likely that young people are likely to play a small role in that vote.

Our elected officials should discuss preeminent Kentucky issues with young voters. In turn, young people will play a bigger role than ever before in solving some of the biggest problems facing our society.

Zachary Clifton is a member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team and a board member of the Kentucky YMCA Youth Association. Dustyn Sams is a third-year law student at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg Law School who will graduate in May.