When Khaliq Muhammad registered to run for 7th Ward alderman in Chicago’s general election this year, he was not even old enough to vote.
A high school senior at King College Prep, Muhammad filed election papers one day before his 18th birthday. He entered the race against six well-funded opponents, including incumbent Sandi Jackson, wife of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Competing became an even bigger challenge after Muhammad was knocked off the ballot for failing to follow election petition rules and was forced to run as a write-in candidate.
“It was a rookie mistake,” he said in April, two months after the election. “But I learned from it.”
Muhammad garnered just six votes, according to the Chicago Board of Elections, as Jackson reclaimed her position. But the loss, according to Muhammad, won’t discourage him from continuing to pursue his political aspirations.
“I don’t have any regrets. I have a lot of new ideas and I definitely plan to run for alderman again,” he said.
Two other young candidates also tried to break into Chicago’s political scene in February’s election.
John Kozlar, a 22-year-old University of Chicago pre-med student, and Devon Reid, an 18-year-old freshman at Wright College, both ran for aldermen in their respective wards and lost. Kozlar lost to an incumbent, James Balcer, but received 22.3 percent in the 11th Ward race-winning more votes than another opponent who was 27 years his senior. Reid won 17.6 percent in total votes as incumbent Roberto Maldonado’s sole challenger in the 26th Ward.
“I had to prove to them that I had the determination and knowledge to fix the issues in our ward,” said Reid, who lives in Humboldt Park.
This zeal for politics, however, isn’t necessarily the norm among America’s youth.
Turnout among young voters decreased from 1972 to 2000, with the exception of 1992, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonprofit, research organization on civic and political engagement of young Americans.
But after years of steady decline, youth participation in politics began to trend upward in 2004 and continued to rise in 2008, the center found.
In the last presidential election nearly 23 million Americans under age 30 voted, an increase of 3.4 million voters from the 2004 election, according to the center’s research. The 18-to-29-year-old demographic made up 18 percent of the electorate in 2008, even outvoting the 65 and older bloc, according to CNN exit polls.
Increased youth participation in politics, however, hasn’t translated to more young people in political office. Rather, it’s quite the opposite: American politicians are getting older, according to a comprehensive study by The Wall Street Journal.
The average age of congressmen has steadily risen since 1981, with only a slight blip in the early 1990s, the Journal reported. The 112th Congress, which convened for the first time in January, has one of the highest age averages of any Congress in recent history- 56.7 years old for members of the House and 62.2 for the Senate, according to the Congressional Research Service’s latest profile.
The rise in age is “likely the result of a high incumbency rate, the aging of the U.S. population, and the first-time elections of older candidates,” Wall Street Journal reported.
Yet, age requirements established by the U.S. Constitution prevent many young people from running for Congress. House representatives must be at least 25 years old to run, and senators must be at least 30. The youngest member of Congress is Illinois Republican, 29-year-old Aaron Schock.
Young people across the United States are finding other arenas in which to pursue political office-and some are winning.
These exceptions include people such as Taggart Wall, 22, and Justin Nickels, 24. Both are the youngest mayors to ever be elected in their respective towns. Nickels, a college student and former grocery store clerk, was elected mayor of Manitowoc, Wis. in 2009 at age 22.
Wall, a recent Southwestern College graduate, became mayor of Winfield, Kan. in April.
According to Muhammad, in some cases, fortitude and passion for public service can be more important than experience. But experience, along with incumbency, does have its perks.
Candidates who raise hundreds of thousands of dollars can afford a campaign headquarters, around-the-clock staffing and extensive advertising, according to expert political campaign observers.
In this year’s general election, Ald. Maldonado spent more than $200,000 on his campaign, compared to Reid’s $3,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. Kozlar and Muhammad had even less money, spending only $520 and $200, respectively, on their grassroots campaigns.
“If I could go back, I definitely would’ve tried to fundraise a lot harder than I did,” Reid said. “I was a bit naïve to think that campaigns weren’t all about the money. It really gives you an advantage in reaching voters.”
But money and life experience don’t always equate to political success, experts maintain.
Ameya Pawar, a former Northwestern University employee, proved that strong policies can sometimes outweigh older age and deep pockets. In February, he shocked political pundits by defeating retiring Ald. Eugene Schulter’s chosen successor in Chicago’s 47th Ward.
Pawar won 50.8 percent of the vote, despite having no previous political experience and raising less than $5,000 in campaign funds.
“We limped along with very little money, but we had this core five or six of us and we just knocked on thousands of doors,” said Pawar, 31, and the City Council’s youngest alderman, to news outlets after his victory.
Young politicians’ success stories have the potential to change the minds of skeptical voters and critics. But until that happens, America’s youth may find other ways to influence their communities.
“I feel that if enough younger people, and enough people in general, get together and show that they care and have a voice, that anything can happen,” Reid said.