I was a Catholic high school senior when I volunteered for the first Clinton-Gore campaign. It was hard to get the other students psyched about the election. I posted a Clinton-Gore sign and a picture of Clinton on my locker. But my fellow students repeatedly defaced my decorations, and not just because they didn't like Clinton. One witty girl scrawled across my sign, in thick black marker, "Get a boyfriend, you political geek!" This bizarre graffiti forced me to face the fact that, among young people, politics just isn't cool.
This youthful disdain for campaigning has only deepened over the past decade. According to U.S. Census data, youth voter turnout has declined since 1972 -- the year the voting age was lowered from 21 -- when 50 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted. In the 2000 election, only 33 percent voted. Here in Vermont, the numbers are even lower: Only 26 percent cast a ballot in 1996.
Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz is working to reverse that trend. Starting in 2000, she began offering the Kids Vote Vermont program to schools. The KVV curriculum walks students through the voting process. The state also partners with The Burlington Free Press and the Rutland Herald to offer "Democracy in Action," a six-part weekly series appearing at election time that explains why voting is important and how to research candidates.
Markowitz will outline her youth-vote strategy this week at "Voting Rights and Wrongs: The Starts and Stops along the Road to Universal Suffrage," a two-day conference in Montpelier sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council. Political organizers, educators, homeschooling parents and students have already signed up for Markowitz's 90-minute Saturday session, "The Youth Vote: Combating Apathy Among 18-25 Year-Olds."
Seeking electoral insight among young Vermonters, I headed to the mall, where a dozen or so members of the youth demographic were willing to talk about why they do or don't vote. I got some cryptic and standoffish answers. Joe, 21, says he didn't vote in the last election because he "didn't feel like it." Most of the young men and women I spoke with were more practical.
For example, Shannon, 23, doesn't vote because she doesn't know enough about the candidates. "If I was to vote, I'd be doing it blindfolded," she says.
Markowitz notes that lack of information is one of the major reasons young people say they don't vote -- though frankly, I find it hard to believe they can't find information. More than any other voting generation in history, this one knows its way around the Internet. Most major candidates have their own Web sites, as do newspapers and issue groups who rate candidates.
The first hit on a Google search for "vote" turns up the very handy database at http://www.vote-smart.org, which has most office-holders indexed. You can type in the last name of your senator, representative or state legislator and find out who they are and where they stand on most important issues.
But it's not just ignorance of the candidates that stumps young voters; it's ignorance of the process itself, a decidedly off-line activity. Markowitz says many young voters stay away out of fear of making a mistake or being embarrassed. That's why voter education in schools is so important: Once young adults leave school, they're much harder to reach.
The KVV program can be a real boost; for one thing, it provides students with the real ballots they'd be using to cast their votes. Chris Brady, a librarian who oversees KVV at Vergennes Union High School, likes the fact that the Secretary of State's office sent him 600 actual ballots for the kids' mock election. However, he concedes that sometimes the language can be difficult for teenagers to understand. Last year's amendment to the constitution about retiring judges was a little complicated. "I still don't understand what that said," Brady admits.
Richard Allen, an enrichment teacher at Williston Central School District, agrees the KVV curriculum is valuable. He administers the mock election and coordinates candidate forums for the fifth- to eighth-graders. But he notes that mock elections aren't enough. "The kids can't just come down and mark the ballots," he says. "You need to digest it with kids, debrief and talk about it."
Those kinds of conversations are supposed to happen in the classroom, but the teachers, and Markowitz, are concerned that voter education can be easily neglected. And she warns that the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act will make things worse. "The emphasis is on tests and measuring learning," Markowitz explains, "but civics is a voluntary curriculum. It isn't tested."
Of course, school isn't the only place to pick up political inspiration. Presiden-tial races are big news, and during election years the spectacle is hard for even teenagers to ignore. Young Vermonters are already beginning to take note of the 2004 election, possibly because they're already pretty familiar with one of the Democratic candidates: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Aileen Thomson, a senior at Burlington High School, is one of several students who have formed "Generation Dean" chapters at their schools. A Student-Council rep who is also on the Fletcher Free Library's Teen Advisory Board, Thomson got involved with the Dean for America campaign through its Web site. Her group has only four members so far, but she's planning to get some organizing tips at the Meetup in November.
"A lot of people think their vote doesn't count," Thomson says, "and it's hard for me to think that my personal vote counts, but if a whole lot of people who feel that way vote, it does make a difference."
Dean's not the only one who's attracting youthful supporters -- Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich has picked up at least one in Plainfield: 13-year-old Dylan Hallsmith. Though he won't be old enough to vote, Hallsmith designed his own Web site -- http://www.kids4kucinich.org -- with help from his mom. He's already been to New Hampshire three times, and met the candidate on a trip to Washington last spring. He hasn't met many local Kucinich boosters his age, but, Hallsmith says, "I've inspired quite a few people on the Yahoo! Games Web site."
Still, the Democrats haven't cornered the youth vote. Most polls indicate the majority of young voters are pro Bush. But their opinions won't register if they don't make it to the polls. Markowitz is hoping to hear some ideas about how to turn them on, and turn them out, at her workshop.
One student who says she'll be there is Amelia Hagen-Dillon, a senior at the Gailer School in Shelburne. She's organizing a voter-registration drive of her own on Dec. 16 at Gailer. The event will feature a panel discussion with political speakers -- Anthony Pollina's the only definite so far. A coffeehouse will follow, with music and refreshments. A notary public will be on hand to administer the Voter's Oath.
Hagen-Dillon -- who's still only 17 -- thinks that voter apathy among her generation is "pretty sad." Voting, she says, is a responsibility. "You can't tell everyone to go out and change the world," she says, "but you can tell them to get out and vote and use the power they do have."
Some young voters I spoke with were more blunt. Sam, a 19-year-old hanging out on Church Street, told me he loves to vote. In his opinion, people who complain about politics but don't vote are the real political geeks. "If you don't vote," he says, "it sucks to be you."
The candidacy of Howard Dean is big news in Vermont. Anti-Bush activism is a regular part of the landscape. Here, it's easy to lose track of how the rest of the country feels about the direction in which Dubya is steering the ship of state.
The polls suggest a change of course. Two years ago, at the start of the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, a whopping 90 percent of all Americans surveyed in a Washington Post-ABC News poll approved of the Prez's performance. By November 2002, that number had dropped to 68 percent. This week, with American deaths in Iraq continuing to mount and employment at home still down, Bush's approval rating is at 56 percent and the electorate is evenly split in a hypothetical match-up between Bush and a generic Democrat.
One year from now, those hypothetical numbers will have been translated into actual votes and we'll have a newly elected president - barring any voting-machine screw-ups or last-minute Supreme Court decisions. How it all shakes out next November will depend on lots of factors, many of them beyond the control of activists and politicians, and impossible to predict today. But it will also be the result of the many ways in which the administration's policies are being countered and citizens are being primed to think for themselves and make their voices heard.
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