Getting out the Youth Vote 2000

After a long spate of political silence, youth voices are beginning to ring out again. Youth organizers -- those involved in Seattle, DC, Philadelphia and LA protests, the United Students Against Sweatshops, anti-prison activists and countless others -- have had a huge impact on America's political consciousness. They've contributed to the understanding that as a group we are active, articulate and organized, and that we are ready for change.

On the other hand, voting statistics over the last eight years show that young people have been voting at a lower rate in each election. In 1992, 38.5 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 20 and 45 percent between 21 and 24 voted. In 1996, the number was down to 31 percent for 18-20 year-olds and 33 percent for 21-24 year-olds. In the 1998 mid-term elections, that percentage had sunk below 15 percent, and in the 2000 primary elections, less than 10 percent of us made it to the voting booths.

To counteract this trend, a number of nationwide initiatives are trying to channel today's renewed youth activism into the voting booths. Among these initiatives is YouthVote2000, a youth-run coalition of over 60 organizations founded in 1994. Executive Director Julia Cohen, the oldest member of the YouthVote administration, is only 31 years old.

"Youth feel categorically ignored," says Ryan Friedrichs, the 23-year-old Deputy Campaign Manager of YouthVote2000. "They feel they have a tremendous voice and nobody is listening."

YouthVote is focusing its energy on two specific campaigns as November's general election approaches, says Friedrichs -- registering/educating/mobilizing voters and convincing the Commission on Presidential Debates to organize the country's first Presidential Youth Debate.

"It is going to be a close election," says Julia Cohen. "It is not necessarily going to be Democratic or Republican voters who determine the outcome. When an election is that close, it is the people in the middle who will decide it." Young people could be those critical swing voters, Cohen contends, but as a group they have not been convinced to vote.

Cohen also hopes that a Presidential Youth Debate will materialize. The youth debates, moderated by young people, would focus on issues relevant to today's youth, including education, jobs, the economy, violence, crime, health insurance and student loans. Prescription drugs, Cohen comments, would not be on the agenda. 150,000 young people have signed a petition asking for these youth-moderated debates.

"The debates are about [young] people seeing people who look like themselves five feet from the candidate," she adds. In other words, if we see that we are on equal footing with our leaders and can demand as much attention as adults, we will become more frequent and effective participants in the political system.

Cohen knows that a Youth Debate would galvanize many young voters, but in the meantime, YouthVote is doing a lot of on-the-ground leg work to get young people to the polls.

"It's about going to where young people are," Cohen says.

One important outreach was when YouthVote joined forces with the MTV Campus Invasion Tour. As the bands Bush and Moby rocked colleges across the country, YouthVote gathered thousands of voter registration cards at the booths which they set up at the concerts. The World Wrestling Federation audience has also surfaced as a good source of voters. Two weeks ago, YouthVote and the WWF sealed an alliance which advertises YouthVote during WWF television matches and on the WWF web site. Since the deal was made, 67,000 people have registered by calling or going onto the YouthVote site.

YouthVote was also present at the Democratic, Republican and Green party conventions and at the Shadow Conventions. In Philadelphia and Los Angeles, YouthVote volunteers and employees gave presentations at the Youth in Action conventions and addressed the Young Democrats and Young Republicans. They also had booths at the Shadow Conventions, where they gathered signatures to support Youth Presidential Debates and registered voters.

The Internet has also proven a powerful organizing tool and information hub for YouthVote. The site contains a wealth of information about the debate campaign, the coalition's member organizations and links to other useful web sites like Election.com, where youth can fill out voter registration forms, print them out and send them in to their local board of elections. The YouthVote list serve contains 20,000 e-mail addresses -- more, Cohen comments, than Arizona Senator John McCain had at the beginning of his bid for the presidency last fall.

As successful as these large efforts are, Friedrichs notes that some of the most successful outreach has been through extensive grassroots organizing. The 22 field organizers who work under Friedrichs are responsible for local non-partisan voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote activities. They also organize a minimum of three debates each, and at least one of these must be at the federal level.

Friedrichs tells an inspiring story about his own entry into the political world. The 23-year-old University of Michigan graduate has been in the voter-motivation industry for some time.

"I had done some international organizing with some of the more human rights-oriented organizations like Amnesty International," Friedrichs says. "I had a sense of democracy around the world and what a tremendous gift it is...People fight for democracy daily."

As Friedrichs discovered the lengths to which people go in pursuit of democracy, he decided to do something about the political apathy of American youth. His first step was to found Voice Your Vote, an organization similar to YouthVote, which educated and mobilized University of Michigan students to vote through extensive grass-roots outreach. Within five weeks, the group had registered 6500 people. He then went on to convince the University of Michigan administration that it should include voter registration forms with its student housing leases. The initiative expanded in 1998 when congress passed an amendment to the Re-authorization of Higher Education Act, which demands that all universities send out voter registration forms to enrolled students. This fall, colleges and universities nationwide will begin to implement the bill.

Friedrichs and Cohen are optimistic about their project and about the future of the youth vote.

"In cases where political leaders have asked, youth have come out," says Friedrichs. "Some politicians have come out and said 'your voices are not only relevant, but essential.'"

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