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Tuning in: young voters are showing intense interest in this year's presidential election. But will they show up at the polls?

Four years ago, the presidential election did not even reach the level of white noise for Marie Reyes. She had bigger concerns--like, just about anything other than what Al Gore and George W. Bush were talking about. "There was nothing in that election that I felt even remotely related to my life," says Reyes, who is 22.

But now, even with a full college class load, a baby, and a part time job, she spends nearly 20 hours a week in Albuquerque, N.M., her hometown, trying to get other young people to register to vote.

What changed Reyes was not just the issues--terrorism, the Iraq war, and college costs, she says--but simple math: Out of the more than 100 million Americans who cast ballots in 2000, the race came down to a smattering of votes in a few states.

"It hit me the same way it hits other people when I tell them: New Mexico was decided by 366 votes--I mean, that's how many people I expect to register, because I think I can do 300 easy," Reyes says.

Reyes is part of the clipboard army scouring malls, public squares, concerts, county fairs, and schools this year in search of young, unregistered voters.

After a dismal turnout by young voters in 2000, surveys this year show that interest in the election among the young is near the highest level since ratification of the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971. And state election officials say registration of new young voters is coming in at levels they have not seen in years.

Polls this spring and summer by the Harvard Institute of Politics, the Pew Research Center, and MTV all found young people planning to vote at a rate that would far eclipse the low-water mark of four years ago. The pool of potential young voters is substantial--about 41 million Americans ages 18 to 29, or one in five eligible voters.

'THERE'S A REAL BUZZ'

"This is a bigger group than 50- to 65-year olds," says Carrie Donovan, the youth director at the University of Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which has studied the youth vote. "It seems like so much of it is influenced by the kind of buzz that's out there, and this year, there's a real buzz."

The effort to register more young voters is taking place amid a larger campaign by both Democrats and Republicans to register new voters, especially in battleground states like Ohio and Florida. The drives have resulted in record numbers of voters being added to the rolls in many jurisdictions.

The political parties are aided by outside groups, both partisan and nonpartisan, which are spending millions of dollars in voter-registration drives. Democrats working for Senator John Kerry insist the pool of new young voters is swinging their way. But Republicans working to re-elect President Bush are doing their own registration drives through college Republican groups, and they say the youth vote is still up for grabs.

Young voters, who were split evenly between Gore and Bush in 2000, are notoriously fickle, according to those who study them. But their votes could make a difference in tight races. In Wisconsin, for example, where the 2000 election was decided by 5,708 votes, more than 74,000 new voters, most of them young, have been added to the rolls by the New Voters Project, a nonpartisan group that is spending nearly $10 million to register new voters in six states where the outcome was tight in the last election. The clipboard legions are taking down cell-phone numbers and e-mail addresses to keep in contact with the young sign-ups.

In Oregon, where the last presidential race was decided by 6,765 votes, it is elbow-to-elbow combat for potential voters. "If I see anyone else with a clipboard, I run to get the angle," says Alden Goodman, 19, of Portland. "I've followed people onto metro trains [and] onto buses."

As one of many young voters who say they get most of their campaign news from the irreverent "Indecision 2004" segment on Comedy Central's Daily Show, Jeff Leek, 22, a statistics major at the University of Washington, says politics was a big topic this year among his friends.

"There's less cynicism, less of this 'Oh, it doesn't matter,'" says Leek, a native of Idaho. He says he supports Kerry.

Of course, campaigns have tried many times before to lure the young into active citizenship, only to be disappointed on Election Day.

DECLINING TURNOUT

Over 30 years, there has been a steady decline in youth turnout, with one big uptick, in 1992. The last presidential election had a particularly low showing by young people: For example, just 37 percent of eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted, compared with 64 percent for those 25 or older, according to exit polls.

In this election cycle, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont was the first candidate to tap into young voters, during a failed bid for the Democratic nomination, with his army of text-messaging and computer-blogging volunteers. Young voter participation was up sharply in the Iowa caucuses (though Dean still lost the youth vote to Kerry).

But as the Dean campaign flagged, the young fell away, and the initial enthusiasm never translated into a larger youth turnout during the rest of the primary season, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls.

But groups seeking to get a large youth vote in the general election are expressing confidence that their latest pitches are sinking in, even after failing to increase turnout in previous elections with rock-star pleas and automated celebrity phone messages. This year, the people involved in the major youth vote drives say they have found success with the old-fashioned strategy of putting people on the ground (like the clipboard brigades), while also targeting young people on the Web and at places like convenience stores.

THE 7-ELEVEN CROWD

Rock the Vote, the nonprofit youth-registration organization that has been criticized as ineffective despite 14 years of well financed campaigns, is distributing a million voter-registration forms, in English and Spanish, at kiosks in 5,000 convenience stores. Shoppers at 7 Eleven stores can get coupons for soft-drink discounts and voter registration forms at the same time: Rock the Vole calls it "a Big Gulp and a piece of democracy to go."

The group's president, Jehmu Greene, says that more than a half million people had downloaded registration forms from the group's site as of mid-September.

Another group has gone a step further. The founders of Hot or Not, a popular youth Web site where people post photographs of themselves that are rated on a "hotness" scale, are holding a sweepstakes in which one registered voter will win $100,000 after the election, with another $100,000 going to the person who helped the winner register for the contest.

While its founders are careful to note that they will not he giving people a cash prize to register to vote (which would be a violation of federal law), they say they want to encourage a high voter turnout. The company says it is nonpartisan.

ISSUES FOR YOUNG VOTERS

There are probably many reasons why young voters are taking a greater interest in the election this year. It does seem, however, that for many young voters, what has changed is not so much that the campaigns have started talking about their concerns, hut that the issues have come around to topics that they care about. Education--particularly the rising cost of college--is consistently listed at the top, followed by war and terrorism.

"I have friends and relatives fighting in Iraq, and trying to go to school," says Marie Reyes, the 22-year-old from Albuquerque. "These things made me think seriously about my future."
How the Young Voted
Exit-polling data from the last five presidential elections show
that young people often, but not always, vote like the population
as a whole.

 18-29 whole Repub-
 years-old population lican Democrat Other

1984
Ronald Reagan 59 59%
Walter Mondale 41 40

1988
George H.W. Bush 53 52
Michael Dukakis 46 47

1992
Bill Clinton 43 43
George H.W. Bush 37 34
H. Ross Perot 19 22

1996
Bill Clinton 49 53
Bob Dole 41 34
H. Ross Perot 8 10

2000
George W. Bush 48 46
Al Gore 48 48
Ralph Nader 3 5

SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES; USELECTIONATLAS.ORG
(percentages are rounded)

Note: Table made from bar graph.


RELATED ARTICLE: Ms. Skaggs, the dog ate my ballot.

By Marek Fuchs in Madison, N.J.

One college professor's idea for getting out the youth vote? Make it a class assignment. Merrill Skaggs, who teaches American literature at Drew University in Madison, N.J., sparked a controversy this summer when she announced she would require her students in the fall to cast ballots. Skaggs later scaled back the requirement after some critics likened her to a totalitarian dictator.

"There's a difference between a totalitarian country and a classroom," Skaggs, 66, argues. "All classrooms have requirements, but you can get out of a classroom if you want. It's an intellectual choice."

Skaggs came up with the idea of the voting requirement after attending a summer conference and learning that only about one-third of college-age students vote. But after she announced her new policy, many faculty members objected. "Whether or not they vote is confidential information," says Fred Curtis, an economics professor at Drew.

Drew's president, Thomas H. Kean, says that though Skaggs's intentions were admirable, the method was not, calling it "a touch over the top."

Swayed by the criticism and the prospect of legal challenges, Skaggs scaled back the requirement before school began. She says students will be required to enter the voting booth, but not to pull the lever. The penalty for ignoring the assignment would probably be "a failure to be generous" on her part when it comes time to issue grades and "an inclination to round fractions down," Skaggs says.

At least one student is not bothered by his Election Day homework. "When she told us we were required to go into voting booths," says Nathaniel Purcell, an English major. "it wasn't a different reaction than when she said on the 21st the first paper is due."

Marek Fuchs reports from New York for The Times.

Seattle-based Timothy Egan writes for The New York Times.

TUNING IN

Young Americans are registering to vote in record numbers. But will they actually show up at the polls on Election Day?

TEACHING OBJECTIVES

To help students understand why--in stark contrast to years past--so many young people have registered to vote in the 2004 presidential election.

ANALYSIS/DISCUSSION: Whether or not your students are old enough to vote, have them imagine they are approached by a voter-registration worker at a mall. Which two or three questions would they most want the voter registration worker to answer?

WRITING: Tell students to imagine they are youth consultants for the presidential candidate of their choice. Their assignment is to write two Election Day ads for MTV or another network with a high percentage of teenage viewers.

The first ad should address, as Marie Reyes says, the "simple math." The ad should focus on just how close elections can be, and that every vote really does count.

The second ad should address any of the issues--terrorism, Iraq, the economy, etc.--that are part of the current presidential campaign. But the ad should not just state that President Bush or Senator Kerry is the better person to deal with the issue. It should also frame the issue in a way that incorporates teenagers' interests and concerns.

DEBATE: Ask students to take sides on Professor Skaggs's class requirement. Students should be able to make a logical argument as to why such an assignment falls within the bounds of class requirements--like turning in a paper on time--or whether the requirement is "totalitarian."

Note that 12 democratic countries mandate voting: Belgium, Greece, Italy (not enforced), Luxembourg, Switzerland (a few cantons only), Brazil, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, and Australia.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

* Why do you think young people traditionally have a low voter turnout?

* Many people who are registered fail to vote. What might account for this?

* Is choosing not to vote in itself a vote--against the candidates?

WED WATCH: For the Democrats' perspective on the campaign, go to www.democrats.org. For Republicans' perspective, go to www.rnc.org.

QUIZ 1

Tuning In

1. This year, Marie Reyes was motivated to get involved in voter registration after

a President Bush and Senator Kerry began talking about issues that mattered to her.

b her youth group started a voter drive.

c she realized how few votes separated the winner from the Loser in the 2000 election.

d a voter-registration worker persuaded her to make the effort.

2. The 26th Amendment towered the voting age from 21 to 18

a during World War I.

b during World War II.

c in the 1960s.

d in 1971.

3. The jump in voter registration among young people is attributed to a new mood among the young and

a easier registration procedures than in the past.

b the determined efforts of get-out-the-vote groups to register young people.

c fears about a reinstatement of the military draft.

d the fact that schools are promoting voter registration as part of the curriculum.

4. Many young potential voters say they get most of their news about the presidential campaign from

a TV news programs.

b the Daily Show.

c their families.

d daily newspapers.

5. The article reports that record numbers of young people are registered, but asks whether they will actually vote. Which type of tactics might the Republican and Democratic campaigns use to persuade those who are registered to actually vote?

--

Answer Key

Upfront Quiz 1 * page TE5

1. (c) She realized how few votes separated the winner and loser in the 2000 election. 2. (d) in 1971. 3. (b) the determined efforts of the get-out-the-vote groups to register young people. 4. (b) TV comedy programs. 5. Answers will vary, but could include appeals to "finish the job" or comparing registering and not voting to breaking a promise.
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Title Annotation:National
Author:Egan, Timothy
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:2364
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