WEEKEND customers at Tower Records in Boston are hearing an unusual question from sales clerks these days: "Are you registered to vote?" If the answer is "No," clerks invite them to stop at a table in the rock-music department to register - a process they promise will take only two minutes.
As David Fitzgerald, Tower's promotions director, explains it, the procedure couldn't be simpler: "Show proper identification, answer a few quick questions about your residency, and sure enough - you're registered to vote."
The store's innovative program, which began last month, is part of a national effort to raise the political consciousness of young people. A two-year-old, nonpartisan voter-registration campaign called Rock the Vote is funded by the music industry. In mid-August, a weekend Rock the Vote telethon, "Choose or Lose," gave MTV viewers an 800 number to call for information on registering. A flag-wrapped Madonna ends one of her songs with the mock warning, "If you don't vote, you're going to get a spankie." Ev en Comedy Central, the comedy cable channel, probably helps the cause with its sometimes irreverent political commentary.
Initial response to Tower's voter-registration drive has been encouraging. Before the campaign, more than 80 percent of store employees, whose average age is around 21, were not registered. Now only 20 percent are not. Among customers, who also tend to be young, several hundred registered the first weekend alone, Fitzgerald says. He expects several thousand people to register by the end of September. And he confidently predicts that 70 or 80 percent of these newly enlisted voters will show up at the poll s Nov. 3.
If that happens, the ranks of young voters will increase over 1988, when only 36 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted.
Fitzgerald, who is 25, sees heartening evidence of new political energy among members of his generation. "Everybody's talking about politics," he observes. "People come in and say, `I do not like Bush,' or `I do not like Clinton.' My philosophy is, if you don't go out and vote, don't complain about what's going on in the world today if you're not going to be part of choosing the government."
Yet what are young people, just coming of political age, to make of the negativism that has characterized the campaign in recent weeks?
What are they to think of the verbal war over family values, the conflicting views on proper roles for women?
This is a generation raised on ideals of equality - a generation that will probably need two incomes in a majority of families. Even the appealing scenes of three generations of the Bush family on the convention stage in Houston raised questions: Have any of the Bushes' adult children needed parental leave? Have any of their grandchildren needed child care?
At a time when TV, magazines, and newspapers are doing everything possible to capture a younger audience, politicians seem largely oblivious to the youth market. Yet if the 27 million potential voters in the 18-to-24 age group do mobilize their political energy, they could represent an impressive voting bloc.
Youth has often been the missing constituency, written off as no-shows at the polling booth. Unlike their elders, they can boast no lobby that would allow them to be courted as a special-interest group.
Yet young people have their agenda. They are the first generation to be brought up to care about the environment. Everything that concerns education concerns them. The federal deficit will be their IOU down the road, and young people are becoming more aware of all this. They are not as apolitical as reputed.
Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, explains in her campaign literature that her 14-year-old son was a major factor in her decision to run for the Senate. She says, "I was taken aback when he told me, `Mom, your generation is leaving this world worse off than you found it.' " Then she adds, "I am not prepared to see my son's generation get a worse deal than my generation got, to have fewer opportunities and a bleaker future."
Two things make young people angry: to be ignored and to be lied to. If those between 18 and 24 awake to their power as voters, politicians will ignore them or lie to them at their peril.