Young voters are looking for a government that works

By Calder Burgam

With two of the oldest presidential candidates in our history sitting atop their respective tickets in the upcoming election, there is justified concern that younger voters will stay home. A Harvard Youth Poll found an eight percent drop in the number of Americans between 18 and 29 years old who “definitely” plan to vote. Young voters “want evidence that democracy works and “that government can address our challenges,” according to polling director John Della Volpe. Looking at the news coming out of Congress lately, that evidence has been hard to come by.

It is not difficult to understand why younger voters are feeling less inclined to engage with our democratic institutions. The problems millions in our country face are existential and have been for years. The climate crisis did not sneak up on us. Economic inequality did not appear out of nowhere. Mass shootings are not a new phenomenon. And yet, the branch of government that is supposed to be most responsive to the needs of the public seems unable to do more than lurch from one crisis to the next.

The good news is there is a model for Congress to follow to win back the trust of younger voters. The even better news is that many in Congress already use it. I know because I’ve seen it firsthand.

Every year, Wayne Law’s Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy places law students in Congressional committees conducting legislative oversight. In 2021, I was one of those law students. I was placed with the Senator Gary Peter’s staff in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC). My initiation into the world of oversight was Congress’ first major investigation into the government’s security, planning, and response failures during the January 6 insurrection followed by the federal government’s response to the COVID pandemic. HSGAC’s investigation team did not shy away from hot button topics.

The experience taught me that effective oversight has four attributes: quality investigating, bipartisan buy-in, public credibility, and policy impact.

To ensure a quality inquiry, investigators made sure to be led by the facts. They sought out diverse witnesses, even if those witnesses held opposing worldviews or perspectives on the issue. They left no stone unturned, sifting through thousands of pages of documents and conducting hours of interviews.

Every step of the way, Senator Peter’s staff worked closely with Senator Portman’s staff to schedule interviews and produce sections of our reports. Where disagreements arose, the sides stated their cases firmly, but civilly, and always reached a compromise. They recognized that the investigation would be more thorough and thoughtful because multiple perspectives were brought to bear. The quality of the investigations and the bipartisan approach had the benefit of improving the credibility of the investigations among other members of Congress and the media. No one could dismiss the findings as partisan maneuvering.

Finally, all the reports included concrete policy recommendations backed by extensive research and supported by members of both parties. At a time when Democrats and Republicans can barely agree on naming post offices, HSGAC’s joint hearings and reports produced opportunities to build consensus on important matters.

Often, it feels as though elected officials are not engaging meaningfully with the issues that matter most. Young voters want to see our elected officials take their concerns seriously. They can do that by employing the principles of good oversight. Spend more time fact-finding and less time grandstanding. Go beyond partisan echo chambers and engage in discussions with a broad array of stakeholders. Debate with others and state your case in good faith and call out your colleagues who are not doing the same. Propose policies that recognize the depth of the problems we face and will meaningfully impact our lives.

I hope young voters will stay engaged with the people’s branch of government in 2024 and beyond. We cannot overcome the obstacles we face as a country without a functioning legislative branch. But legislators need to do their part to give young voters a reason to believe they have the capacity to address the issues that matter most. If they don’t, young voters should flex their oversight muscle and vote in candidates who will.
Calder Burger is currently an associate attorney with Fink Bressack, Detroit, Michigan.

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