University of Wisconsin-Madison students stand in line at the Gordon Dining Center to obtain a free UW student voter ID.


Right now, the British youth are learning the hard way that the will of the people and the will of the voters are two very different things. Young people across the U.K. are decrying the Brexit referendum’s unexpected outcome to leave the E.U., when a number of public opinion polls predicted a victory for the “Remain” camp. With their future job, educational, and travel opportunities on the line, they had the most to lose. Yet only an estimated 36 percent of 18-to 24-year-olds actually voted in the election.

We Americans shouldn’t feel superior, since our elections show a similar pattern.

Why don’t young people vote? Maybe it’s because their social studies teachers taught them that, in a democracy, the will of the people determines the outcomes of elections. Nobody has explained to them that this is false. Naturally it takes them awhile to figure it out on their own.

Why is this false? When I teach reasoning to college students, I use elections to explain the potential pitfalls of induction. In inductive reasoning, you take a group of specific instances (a group of people, for instance) and draw conclusions about the whole (such as who they want to be their next president). The reliability of your conclusions will depend on the quality of your sample. Random samples (which scientific polls use) are so good that you need a surprisingly small number of people to generate valid results with a quantifiable window of error.

Self-selected samples, on the other hand, generate inaccurate results. The people who decide to show up bias the outcome, leading to erroneous conclusions about the overall population. As an example, I ask my students if they can trust a hypothetical poll about gun control on the NRA’s website that shows most Americans oppose it.

Of course not, my students immediately reply.

Why not? I ask.

Members of the NRA tend to oppose gun control, my students instruct me. So that bias would skew the results.

But the poll was open to everyone, I object. Anyone with an internet connection could weigh in.

My students are patient with me. NRA members are going to be more highly motivated to participate in that particular poll and have easier access to it than other people, they explain.

That’s when I ask them what kind of sample an election uses.

It usually takes awhile, but in the end a bright student will pipe up that elections have self-selected samples.

I ask: Does that mean our elections lead to valid results that accurately reflect the will of the people?

Eyes wide in horror, they shake their heads.

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No, they don’t, I repeat out loud. They reflect the will of the voters. And who are the voters?

At this point, I treat my students to a series of slides showing the 2012 voting demographics. Older people vote at higher rates than young people. The wealthy vote at higher rates than the impoverished. White people vote at higher rates than people of color.

Whose will is being done in these elections? I ask the class.

“Um, how would someone who just turned 18 register to vote?” one young man asked in return when I taught this material last week.

We spoon feed pieties about democracy to our children and then sneer when they swallow them. Instead of disparaging young people for not voting, let’s explain how elections actually work. Otherwise, like the youth of Britain, our youth will learn the hard way, too.

Elizabeth Galewski, a rhetoric professor, won the Madison Area Technical College 2016 Distinguished Teacher Award for part-time faculty.

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