Exercising The Right: Examining the Youth Vote

Twenty-five years ago, Americans from age 18 to 21 were granted the right to vote by the 26th Amendment. Since that time, an entire generation raised during the height of the Watergate scandal has passed the portals into adulthood. Today's youngest voters stand apart from their Baby Boom predecessors, who cried out for the right to vote as they got their draft cards in the mail.

For many in this generation, their earliest memory of politics is President Carter or President Reagan interrupting afternoon cartoons to deliver an address. They learned about the political process from Schoolhouse Rock<>, and still can sing the chorus to "I'm Just a Bill" if you ask them. Bearing the burden of unpleasant generational labels, they have often been shuffled into a drawer labeled "slackers," and few political candidates have bothered to take them -- or their concerns -- seriously.

That started to change in 1992. For the first time, candidates started popping up on MTV, television talk shows, popular morning radio programs and the Internet, seeking out Generation X on its own turf.

The results were undeniable. That year, 42.8 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 24 voted, almost a 20-percent increase over the 1988 presidential election. They accounted for 9.2 percent of the total vote in 1992, the highest turnout since they were given the right to vote in 1972.

And they proved to be a major factor in Bill Clinton's victory. He garnered 43 percent of the youth vote, compared to George Bush's 34 percent.

But in the 1994 elections, without a president to headline the ballot, that momentum disappeared. A paltry 20 percent of people age 18 to 24 bothered to vote, according to Rock the Vote. Founded in 1990 to fight censorship in music and art, the group registered 350,000 people to vote in 1992.

Yet there are early signs the activism of 1992 could be making a comeback this year. Even more young people have registered to vote through the newly-implemented Motor Voter law than the total from four years ago. A New York Times poll in the fall of 1995 found that 40 percent of the new registrants were younger than 24.

Voter education groups claim that voters aged 18 to 24 can be a swing vote in this fall's election -- if they go to the polls.

As with the characters in Reality Bites<> -- a movie many young people embraced as a defining snapshot of their generation -- there are still plenty of 18- to 24-year-olds more willing to sulk on the couch, absorb cable television and smoke cheap cigarettes than walk down to the precinct and vote.

But they are a product of their times, and times have changed.

"One thing is that in 1972 the (Vietnam) war really drove a lot of activism among young people, and there's not that kind of exigency right now that brings young people together to address politics," said Mark Strama, program director of Rock the Vote.

Add to that the fact that many candidates don't bother to speak to young voters. Youth Vote '96, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition dedicated to increasing youth voter participation, released a poll this spring revealing that voters aged 18 to 30 are not uninterested in politics, but they are disaffected because candidates and campaigns don't speak to their interests.

Strama echoed that sentiment.

"What you have now is a feeling among a lot of young people that government doesn't affect their lives," he said.

"You can see where they get that feeling when you listen to the candidates talk, because they're not talking to young people, and they're not often talking about the issues that are important to young people. There's a feeling of disconnectedness from the political system."

Groups like Rock the Vote tap into the influence of star power to connect to young people. Its television public service announcements featuring a scantily clad Madonna turned heads in the last presidential election. This year, television announcements will feature lookers such as Noah Wyle of NBC-TV's ER<> and Josie Bissett of Fox's Melrose Place<>. A series of radio announcements includes the Nixons and Joan Osborne.

"The celebrities who support us really get people's attention," Strama said.

"They have an incredible impact on shaping the opinions and attitudes that can make a difference in whether or not young people can vote."

Youth Vote -- a non-partisan coalition bringing together about 100 organizations, including Rock the Vote, MTV's Choose or Lose campaign and the United States Student Association, to mobilize young voters -- focuses on education, the environment and the economy in its platform.

Its goal is for 12 million young voters to cast ballots in the November presidential election. That's about 50 percent of the total population of voters 18 to 24 and 2 million more than 1992.

A February Youth Vote poll reported that 89 percent of young people say they are likely to vote in the fall election. But voter participation overall has dropped steadily since a high of 63 percent in 1960. In 1992, the U.S. ranked 23rd in voter participation among the world's democracies.

Youth Vote offers an optimistic view of an America where young people care about their future and the future of their country. But is there more to this than just an image, like the slick, pro-voting public service announcements Rock the Vote has produced with Ricki Lake and the Presidents of the United States of America?

It would seem MTV has stirred up more excitement for politics among young voters than anytime since Greg and Marsha Brady ran against each other for student council president in the Seventies. In the 1992 election, an MTV studio audience member dared to ask the most personal of questions of then-candidate Clinton: Briefs or boxers, Bill?

While that kind of irreverence may have appalled older voters, it's an approach that struck a chord with young voters. Look for more of the same this time around. Since January, the MTV Choose or Lose bus has roamed the countryside in search of college campuses and unregistered voters.

On the outside, the designer bus has more than 100 quotes from such pillars of society as Aristotle, Lyndon Johnson and the members of Nirvana. The inside of the bus has a jungle-pattern rug and a metallic gold ceiling covering and is loaded with computer and stereo equipment.

Along the nationwide tour, Choose or Lose staffers interview young voters and candidates. MTV's Tabitha Soren quizzed Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole on the bus in January. The bus makes frequent stops at concerts such as Lollapalooza, Hordefest and House of Blues.

So far this year the Choose or Lose bus has registered 17,000 people to vote. MTV started the program in 1992, and with the help of Rock the Vote, the network registered more than 750,000 voters that year. It also recruited Dave Mustaine, lead singer of Megadeth, and rap artist MC Lyte as correspondents to the Democratic convention and Ted Nugent and Treach from Naughty by Nature to cover the Republican convention.

Now comes evidence the movement is going worldwide. In Taiwan, the nation's presidential candidates had the chance to be guest VJs on MTV Asia. Candidates sought the youth vote while introducing videos by Bon Jovi and Bjork on the Mandarin-language channel.

Finally, Soviet President Boris Yeltsin borrowed the name Choose or Lose when he targeted young Russians before the recent election. Yeltsin sought out young voters, loosening his tie to dance in Soviet discotheques.

Still, some are dubious about MTV's education attempts. But in the fast-paced world of music videos, where images last seconds and viewers grow accustomed to absorbing the world in three-minute chunks, it's no surprise that voters may be more interested in Everclear than economics.

If anyone can serve as a mobilizing force to get the 18-to-24-voting bloc to the polls, logic would dictate it would be young candidates. But because of negative campaigning and political mudslinging, fewer candidates under 30 are running for election now than usual.

Young candidates may have more difficulty raising money for a campaign than better-connected, older candidates. But when term limits start opening up seats, it could open up the playing field for younger candidates.

All in all, people 18-30 are earning more bachelor's and master's degrees than ever before, and some hopeful young politicos think that has caused politics to grow in popularity. Yet an MTV national survey released in March reported that 70 percent of people 17 to 29 feel turned off by this year's presidential election. That hardly bodes well for those hoping to mobilize that particular group.

If young people don't see government as relating to their lives, can the flashiness of MTV get them interested for long? Perhaps they only will begin to care when they stop thinking of voting in terms of its relative coolness and start thinking about how it affects their daily lives.

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