In “18 in 08,” 19-year old filmmaker David Burstein makes his directorial debut with an examination of America’s youth vote, what young voters seek in their candidates, and just how politicians can motivate his peers to the polls. He spoke with the Village Voice about his generation’s involvement in the political process and his motivation for making the film.
Interview by John DeSio
VV: What inspired you to take on this project?
DB: Well, for me, it was sort of looking around me at my peers sort of in the wake of the 2004 elections, and just realizing that although I had a small group of friends who were very passionate about issues and about politics that there were really this large number of people around me in my generation who I didn’t see as interested and engaged in the political process. And I said I wanted to do something about that, I want to create something that will help to engage people in the political process. And looking at film as a really powerful medium for that, I decided wouldn’t it be great if I made a film talking about these issues and encouraging people to vote.
VV: In the beginning of the movie Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) says that it was a mistake to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971. Do you agree with that?
DB: I don’t agree with him, but I sort of understand a little bit of his perspective, which is that politicians in the 1970’s made a major effort to create a constitutional amendment allowing people between 18 and 21 to vote, and it’s not something that has been fully taken advantage of. One of the things that we have to be aware of is that’s the reason some politicians are not reaching out to young people as much, because they feel like they went through all this trouble to create an opportunity for young people to participate in the process by allowing more young people to vote, and that young people haven’t fully taken advantage of that. I think the voting age absolutely should have been lowered to 18, but I think we need to show politicians more that we can participate in larger numbers. Then no one will think it was a mistake.
VV: Another point that is made in the film is that youth voters need to give politicians more of a reason to pay attention to them. How are young voters going to do that?
DB: The best way they can do it is by showing up in larger numbers during this upcoming election. It’s sort of a two-way cycle, in that if we don’t show politicians we’re engaged they’re not going to try and engage us, and if politicians aren’t talking about our issues and aren’t talking to us we’re not going to engage with them. So it think it’s important that young people just take the first step, and I think that can really happen in 2008. And then politicians will see these young people are a reliable voting bloc, and they’re people who we can count on to vote, and then they’ll start paying more attention to us.
VV: One of the traditional ways politicians have courted the youth vote has been to quote a rap song, or put a hat on backwards, or make some other awkward grab and looking young and cool. Do you think some of mildly offensive, that it reeks with insincerity?
DB: Absolutely. A lot of that stuff really turns young people off, particularly going to a college campus and saying something like, “I know you all want to hear about lowering the drinking age.” Or doing something like putting a hat on backwards, or saying, “I like Beyoncé.” I think sometimes these candidates don’t really know how to reach out to young people, so they have an advisor who tells them this is how you reach out to young people. Obviously that’s someone they shouldn’t have as an advisor anymore.
I think young people just really want to be talked to about the issues that politicians talk to everyone about. They want to be talked to about the war in Iraq, they want to be talked to about healthcare, they want to be talked to about jobs, they want to be talked to about the economy. Young people just want to be talked to like they’re any other voter, and I think when politicians try and say, “Hey, I’m really cool,” I think it does offend young people’s intelligence and sense of participation. I think that, in many ways, can turn people off because they feel like they’re not being treated like a legitimate, responsible voter.
VV: In the film the issue is raised that absentee ballots can make it difficult for college students to participate in the voting process because they can be so hard to get. Is that a legitimate concern, or would a motivated voter find a way to move heaven and earth and get their absentee ballot?
DB: I think that the motivated voter will always find a way to vote. But making the absentee ballot process easier makes it much easier for people who aren’t as motivated to vote. There are always going to be young people who are really motivated to vote. I went around like crazy trying to get my absentee ballot for the local elections in Connecticut back in November. But other people, who aren’t as engaged in the process, the absentee ballot process and its complexity hurts. It’s not well publicized, if you’re in college in another state. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t take that initiative, but there are definitely some ways we can make it easier for young people to have access to that process.
VV: In the last presidential election Howard Dean really galvanized the Internet, he became the youth candidate, and then he finished third in Iowa and his campaign floundered from there. Do you think that was disheartening for younger voters?
DB: Yes. I think that a lot of young people were really excited about Howard Dean, and one of the things that young people get really excited about is candidates, not so much specific issues. And it’s much easier to attach to a personality. I think what people saw in Howard Dean was someone who was authentic, fresh, off the cuff, not politics as usual. I think that appealed to a lot of people. Although [youth voter turnout] did go up in 2004, one of the reasons it was not anywhere near where it could have been I think was because there were a lot of people that did get engaged in the process with Dean, and then didn’t go over to [John] Kerry because they didn’t find him inspiring and exciting.
VV: Who is the current candidate inspiring young voters? Is it Barack Obama?
DB: Yes, I think the obvious answer is Obama. I think the youth are getting behind him for a lot of the same reasons they got behind Howard Dean. He seems to be authentic, and I think one of the biggest things about Obama is simply that he looks young. And I think that appeals especially when you put him on a stage with people like Chris Dodd and Joe Biden and John McCain, he looks more like us than anyone else who is running. So I think that really helps, and his campaign has done a really good job of reaching out to young people. I think right now he’s the candidate whose staff is really reaching out to youth.
VV: How does the level of partisanship in Washington effect young voters? Does it keep them from getting involved?
DB: I think it turns them off. Everybody is frustrated with the partisanship and the polarization in Washington. But I think it’s more frustrating to young people who might be getting involved for the first time. You look at the declining level of civility and real discussion of the issues, and the name-calling, and you’re looking at politics for the first time, and this is not something you look at and say “Oh, great, I really want to be involved with this.” It doesn’t look like it’s about substance, it looks like it’s about partisanship and going back and forth, so I think that does turn a lot of young people off. Politics is not very appealing on the surface to young people.
VV: What are the issues that are going to move young people to the polls in 2008?
DB: I think it’s going to be things like the Iraq war, I think it’s going to be healthcare, I think it’s going to be global warming. I think those are three of the big issues that young people will be looking at. College tuition is a smaller issue, but very present.
VV: Will youth voter turnout go up or down in 2008?
DB: It’s definitely going to go up in 2008. I think we’ll see 60 percent, at least.