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Debate Designed to Rock the Vote Has Uphill Path

November 04, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When the Democratic presidential candidates take the stage for a debate today in Boston, they will be facing a new kind of questioner.

Sponsored by Rock the Vote, a nonprofit group founded by rock stars in 1990 to "make political participation cool," the forum will feature young people asking questions in person and online. Watch-the-debate parties, voter-registration contests and tallies on which candidate provided the best video also have been organized as part of the "America Rocks the Vote" event.

"It sends a message to young Americans that their concerns are worthy of a forum," said Anderson Cooper, host of the debate, which airs on CNN at 4 p.m. PST.

But if history is any guide, this and other efforts underway to interest young people in the presidential campaign and increase their turnout at the polls next year face an uphill struggle.

In 1972, just after the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, 55% of those age 18 to 24 and eligible to vote did so, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland.

In the years since, according to the center, turnout by this age group in presidential elections has generally declined, topping the 50% mark only once -- in 1992, when MTV-savvy candidate Bill Clinton was first on the ballot. In the 2000 election, 42% of eligible voters age 18 to 24 cast ballots; the figure for those 25 and over was 66%, according to the center.

The core reasons that young people avoid the polls, experts say, mirror the complaints heard among some older voters -- a sense that both parties are more alike than not; a belief that one vote will make little difference; a distaste for the confusing thicket of rules for registering.

Above all, there is a distrust of political rhetoric. "Young people have grave difficulties believing anything politicians say," said Murray Print, a civics education specialist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Undaunted, the political parties and national advocacy groups are launching ever more creative methods to encourage voter participation by young people.

The World Wrestling Entertainment group has teamed up with the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and other more traditional organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, to try to register 2 million new voters between the ages of 18 to 30 by the 2004 presidential election. The program is called Smackdown Your Vote.

On Monday, Kent State University in Ohio hosted Smackdown's first get-out-the-vote rally; participants included politicians and two well-known wrestlers: Maven and the Hurricane. "This is the first of a series of forums we're doing with young people on issues that concern them," said Gary Davis, vice president of World Wrestling Entertainment, who said wrestling's core audience is made up of fans 13 to 30 years old. "We're taking our brand power and celebrity to encourage participation."

There is no shortage of explanations for the falloff in youth voting, or in prescriptions for fixing it.

Bill Galston, a political theorist at the University of Maryland, thinks the decline in voting by young people has a lot to do with method. "Young people respond strongly to face-to-face campaigning, not top-down media messages," he said.

John Seery, a historian at Pomona College, advocates changing the Constitution to lift the age minimums for candidates, which is pegged at 25 years old for the House, 30 for the Senate and 35 for the presidency. Seery proposes letting anyone at least 18 seek these offices.

Nonparticipation in the political process by young people "is not because of the folly of youth," he said. "They realize, maybe not consciously, that the system is rigged against them."

Laurel Elder, a political scientist at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., places part of the blame for lower turnout rates among young people on a registration process that requires citizens to initiate contact with voter officials every time they change residence.

"Our system of registration is particularly a burden on young people, who are highly mobile," said Elder, who is taking 20 students to New Hampshire in January to see if firsthand exposure to politics "turns them off or gets them more excited."

Ellen Shearer, a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, expressed doubts that changes to the voting process would make a key difference in turnout by young people. "Mail voting, weekend voting, easier registration -- all of those things probably would help -- but a substantial number of young people are saying they have no interest. That's not about 'couldn't get there.' It's about 'didn't want to try.' "

Shearer credited former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for using the Internet to reach young voters and get them involved in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. "The Internet is certainly their medium, and those candidates who can use the Web are speaking their language," she said.

To the sponsors of "America Rocks the Vote," today's debate marks an opportunity to pierce not just apathy among young people, but candidates' indifference to their concerns.

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