Who Cares About the Youth Vote?

Who can forget Bill Clinton's pandering to the youth voter during his 1992 bid for the presidency -- playing his saxophone on Arsenio Hall and doing an MTV Rock the Vote special, in which he fearlessly answered the question, "Boxers or briefs?"In these attempts to capture the youth vote, the future president seemed young, somewhat hip, and decidedly different than any candidate we had ever seen before.And all that courting had big results. That November the number of 18- to 30-year-olds who actually showed up to vote on election day went up for the first time in recorded voting history, climbing 20 percent to create a 43 percent turnout.But by 1996, the numbers were down again -- it was an incumbent year for Clinton, and Dole hardly reached out at all.So far this cycle we've seen George W. Bush on Letterman and Leno, but an all out commitment to reach the 18-30 voter hasn't materialized among either of the major candidates now heading for the general election. Indeed, Senator McCain was the only candidate with a full-time paid youth advisor on his campaign staff. His and Senator Bradley's campaigns were reinvigorating the American voter, creating higher public interest and involvement. Now it's down to two men and, apparently, business as usual.Would 'Someone Else' Please Step Forward?In a poll informally conducted on the Shewire/Snowball website, results were feeble for all candidates before the Super Tuesday primary. The results for Shewire's poll question, "If the election were held today, who would you vote for?" had "Someone Else" in the lead, with Al Gore a close second.Figuring it couldn't be as obvious as cynicism, I sought out John Dervin of Youth Vote 2000. "Neither party has much relevance to youth voters," says John. "This election so far is all about personality and the mechanics of politics. That's just noise to young people."Dervin points out that although this 44 million strong demographic has millions of marketing dollars spent trying to capture their dollars and their loyalty, very little resources are expended trying to get their vote."It's really a viscous 'chicken-and-egg' style cycle," says Dervin. "This group of people has low voter turnout, especially when compared to the over 60 age group. Although both blocks are the same size, 28 percent of the 60-plus folks vote, compared to just 13 percent of the 18-30 crowd. Consequently, there are no campaign resources directed at trying to get the youth vote. Not getting a targeted message from the candidates results in low turnout, which perpetuates the cycle."As for the general election, Julia Cohen, executive director of Youth Vote 2000, says it's still too early to forecast this year's voter turnout. "It's going to be a long, slow spring and summer heading up to election," she says. "I'm just not sure how a Gore/Bush election will go about attracting more people and keep them engaged."Alive and Kicking -- Just Not VotingAlison Byrne Fields from Rock the Vote says her organization's goal is to get young voters to understand that voting doesn't occur in a vacuum, it's part of a set of actions. "We help young people understand that actions, whether its running a 'zine, organizing within your community, or attending a town council meeting, are essential actions to take while living in a democracy."She says that low numbers at the polls aren't evidence of a lack of political engagement. One need look no further than the footage from the World Trade Organization's summit protests for evidence of youth engagement. During the days of tumultuous protests, young people marched alongside people from every age group to voice their opposition to the WTO.And Dervin points out that volunteerism among this age group is at an all-time high. In a national youth survey conducted last September by 20/20 Vision, 93 percent of respondents said "volunteering locally to help people directly" is an effective way to make change.Clearly, this is a group willing to get involved, especially at a community level. Building on that information, Youth Vote 2000 aims to build on its 50 organizations and coalitions by bringing youth together at a grass roots level, drawing them closer to national politics, and adding volume to their political voice.These voters are concerned with issues of education, crime and violence, jobs, and the future of social security, not tax cuts and defense spending. But Byrne Fields puts it best: the disconnect between the candidates and young adults is in the way candidates address the issues."Both candidates have youth advisors; I just don't think they are doing a very good job. When they address issues like crime and education, they usually direct the message towards the parents," she says. "Even the obligatory speeches at universities are merely a backdrop for the candidates to address a national audience. The political arena hasn't figured out how to market themselves to a generation of people that have instigated some of the savviest marketing ploys ever."In the end, she likens the situation to a school dance, with the youth vote as a wall flower, hoping to get asked to dance. "It's really kind of sad how they aren't being brought together. I don't want to condescend to young people when I say this, but it doesn't take much to bring young people together and get them involved."So to all the wall flowers out there: Shall we dance?This article originally appeared on Chicklick's news channel, Shewire.com. Eileen Parks is a Shewire intern.

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