Archive for Thursday, August 19, 2004

Stand up and make your vote count’

Despite the power to “change the face of America,” experts say voung voters are ignoring elections

August 19, 2004

Talk to any candidate running for public office and they'll tell you the same thing -- cornering the market on voters in the 18 to 24-year-old demographic is essential to winning on election day.

The potential of young voters to shape the political landscape is so great politicians will use non-traditional media to appeal to voters in their late teens and early 20s.

It's why Bill Clinton played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show during his 1992 campaign to unseat incumbent George Bush. It's why this year's crop of presidential hopefuls, John Kerry and Howard Dean, gave interviews to magazines like Rolling Stone and appeared on MTV specials.

It's why Bob Dole stars in a Pepsi commercial with Britney Spears.

But while politicos are clamoring for their attention, statistics indicate generation next isn't paying heed.

Voter turnout for all demographics indicates just one in three registered voters, or 33 percent of the voting populace, will cast a ballot on election day. According to the New Millenium project, a national study commissioned to investigate the apathy of young voters, fewer than one in five 18-to-24-year-olds voted in 1998.

During the primary election earlier this month, clerks in Wyandotte, Johnson and Leavenworth counties reported the percentage of turnouts for all voters between 24 and 32 percent. Statistics on young voter turnout during the primary election were not available, but those involved with young voters on a day-to-day basis say it's safe to say the numbers most likely are similar to the low turnouts of elections past.

In 2002, just 32 percent of young voters registered to vote and half that, approximately 16 percent, showed up at the polls.

Joe Novak, principal of Mill Valley High School, is on a one-year sabbatical so he can work on the young voter dilemma. He currently serves as the education outreach director of Freedom's Answer, a national organization designed to promote young voter registration and participation.

He said young voters feel disconnected with politics because they perceive the older generation doesn't pay enough attention to their concerns. "And the older people don't feel they should listen because the young people don't vote," Novak said.

Noah Simpson, a government teacher at Basehor-Linwood High School, finds himself in a unique position. Simpson, 23, not only teaches students that fall into the 18-to-24 year-old demographic, he's a member of that generation as well.

"(Young voters) don't see how their vote is going to matter," Simpson said. "The young generation sees it that way right now."

Some factors as to why young voters are bypassing their civic duty on election day, according to responses gathered in the New Millennium study, include:

  • A majority of young people were not motivated to vote out of habit, duty, guilt or fear of what would happen to American democracy.
  • Voters said they were too busy.
  • They didn't have enough information.
  • Most young voters defined the most important part of citizenship as helping others.
  • Voters indicated schools don't do a good enough job of giving them information and basic skills they need to vote.

Novak said there are other ingredients causing the low turnout numbers to boil into a growing problem. Voter apprehension about not knowing how to vote is one of them, he said, as is the confusion on advanced and absentee ballots.

"There is a certain reluctance at having never been at the polls before," he said.

Also, young voters today aren't as likely to be reared on the importance of the democratic process. Almost half of the young voters surveyed in the New Millennium study said they never or almost never talked about politics, government or current events with their parents.

Novak said parents can have a big impact on their children by taking them to the polls as youngsters and educating them on the process.

"If you, at four years old, accompany your parents to the polls, you are 10 times more likely to vote when you are 18," Novak said.

Simpson said he and his students discuss politics, current events and other governmental issues each day during class.

The second-year teacher also tries to ingrain in each student the importance of voting by relating tales of historical votes in which elections were decided by only a few ballots.

"If you don't vote, you don't have a right to have an opinion," he said. "I really try to push that idea -- you need to speak up, stand up and make your vote count."

But where does the importance of politics get lost on young voters? Where is voting -- the mother's milk of democracy -- losing its allure with the leaders of tomorrow?

Alex Rausch and Aubree Casper, sophomores at Mill Valley High School and members working with the Freedom's Answer organization, said some young voters tend to voice their opposition to issues and candidates by ignoring the political process altogether.

As part of Freedom's Answer, Rausch and Casper help rally students everywhere to not only vote, but to gain pledges from 10 other people to vote.

"We want them to vote because if you protest (by not voting) then nothing is going to change," Rausch said.

Curiously enough, the New Millennium study indicates more issues unite young and old voters than divide them. Issues pertinent to everyone like education, violence, jobs and the economy were found at the top of the list of concerns for young voters.

Where the young-voter demographic tends to lose interest lies in that young people "have been raised in a time period dominated by political scandals, and their parents are just as cynical," according to the study.

"I really do think young people, and voters in general, are sick and tired over candidates squabbling over personalities," Novak said.

Simpson said he thinks another big detraction was the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election. He said the election of George W. Bush, despite his not winning the popular vote, served a harsh lesson to young voters.

"They think 'well ,we don't have enough electors to sway it anyways,'" Simpson said. "I don't think there's a loss of interest in politics there, but a loss of voting in general."

Whether the 2000 election will carry over into the general election in November remains to be seen, Simpson said. He, like Novak, Rausch and Casper, have faith that the young generation will make their voice heard this fall.

"Based on the conversations I've had with friends and students that have graduated I think there will be a big turnout this year because the decisions have been more controversial," Simpson said. "And I think they are starting to see how much it really does effect their lives."

Novak said if young voters collectively realize what everyone else knows -- "that they have the power in their hands to change the face of America" -- then maybe they'll learn another lesson that's common knowledge.

"It's impressive to see what young people can do," he said.

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