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Originally published October 24, 2012 at 4:30 PM | Page modified October 24, 2012 at 4:30 PM

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Op-ed: The young voter is not a unicorn

Political participation is like a party, writes guest columnist Toby Crittenden. If you don’t invite someone, how surprised can you be when he or she doesn’t show up?

Special to The Times

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EVERY year, the political chattering classes gather around the metaphorical water cooler and ponder the age-old Riddle Of The Young Voter. As Election Day looms, the prevailing attitude is that the ever-elusive young voter might as well be a unicorn — mythical, legendary and nigh-on impossible to track down.

My organization, the Washington Bus, has spent our five years of existence working with young people all across Washington state, and engaging them in the political process. Everywhere we go, from Spokane to Bellingham to Tacoma, we find the same pattern: Civic participation among our peers is not a question of personal apathy; it’s a question of political access.

The 2008 presidential campaign showed that young voters can be a motivated and pivotal voting force, provided you invest actual resources in engaging them. In an interview following that election, Obama campaign mastermind David Plouffe was asked about the youth vote his candidate received. He replied that it wasn’t just chance — the campaign worked really, really hard to make it happen.

Political participation is like a party. If you don’t invite someone, how surprised can you be when he or she doesn’t show up? The 2008 Obama campaign was the exception rather than the rule. We consistently underinvest in young voters, then we wonder why they don’t care enough to cast their ballots.

The millennial generation, born roughly between 1980 and the early 2000s, is the largest generation in the history of the United States. Nationally, there are currently 46 million 18-to-29-year-olds who are eligible to vote, far outnumbering the 39 million eligible voters over the age of 65. Three short years from now, in 2015, millennials are projected to make up one out of every three eligible voters in the country.

Our generation is huge, and we will be making an impact on policy for generations to come.

We young folks move an average of once every three years, so we need to update our voter registration more often. Even when we’re perfect voters, we don’t show up as “regular” in campaign lingo until we’re out of our mid-20s. We avoid TV (and hence campaign ads) in favor of Hulu, and we screen calls coming in to our cellphones.

And yet, young people are just like every other kind of human being. When you talk to us, and engage us, we respond. The same basic tactics that work for our grandparents work for us: face-to-face conversations, addressing the issues that we care about and hearing encouragement from our peers.

That doesn’t mean our work always looks traditional. On Saturday, Oct. 27,the Bus is organizing Trick or Vote, our giant costumed get-out-the-vote canvass. Hundreds of young people will be dressed up in full Halloween regalia, going door to door, getting candy and reminding voters to turn their ballots in.

It’s that particular blend of fun and effectiveness that galvanizes our volunteers.

We’ve seen this approach succeed time after time. This year, the Washington Bus joined forces with the Washington Student Association and WashPIRG to run a giant, united young-voter-registration drive.

All told, the Youth Vote Coalition registered the whopping sum of 14,357 young voters.

Young people care about our communities and the issues that affect us. No generation is as affected by the job market, the financial cost of education or the human cost of war as ours.

It is entirely possible for campaigns and organizations to connect with my generation, but only if they choose to invest their time and energy in making it a reality. Unicorns may not exist, but young people are all around you; all you have to do is meet us where we are.

A Seattle native and proud Garfield High School graduate, Toby Crittenden got on the Washington Bus in 2007 and has served as executive director since the spring of 2012.

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