Renewing democracy, one young voter at a time
NEW YORK — They line up in droves: mostly guys, mostly young, eager for a casual dinner of burgers and body-slams.
Inside the cavelike dining room of the World Wrestling Federation's theme restaurant in New York's Times Square, you're supposed to watch TV while you eat - on a giant screen or on many smaller ones, all showing WWF action - despite what your mother taught you.
Out in the lobby, patrons are being served up an appetizer of civic awareness.
"Are you registered to vote?" Dave Palmer asks patrons waiting to pay the $10 cover charge.
Lots of folks say "yeah," but not too convincingly. "They just want to get into the restaurant," says Mr. Palmer of Youth Vote 2000. "We'll ask again when they go to the restroom."
Some, though, decline. "I don't wanna get on jury duty," says Jason Bussel, a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Still others shrug and say, "Sure, why not," as if no one had ever asked before.
By 9 p.m. on a recent Monday, Palmer and three other volunteers had registered 36 new voters. This is painstaking work, renewing democracy one voter at a time.
The quest to sign up young voters in this Manhattan eatery is just a small part of what is now a major effort across the nation to get young Americans involved in the democratic process. From 7-Eleven to Wal-Mart to the World Wide Web, an increasing number of outlets are getting into the act.
But the challenge is unprecedented: This generation of young people is more disengaged from politics than previous ones. The reasons are as varied as the hair colors at a rave. Apathy and cynicism, widely evident, are rooted in educational changes such as less civics instruction, lifestyle patterns (including TV-viewing habits), and even the effects of divorce, some analysts say. And politicians themselves - as well as media coverage of America's political institutions - do not always live up to expectations, dashing youthful idealism.
"The long-term implications are obvious," says a recent report from the Aspen Institute called "30 Million Missing Voters" - the number of citizens age 18 to 30 who didn't vote in the 1996 presidential election. "If young Americans fail to vote, what is the future of American democracy?"
Young adults have always turned out at a lower rate than the voting-age population as a whole. When 18-year-olds got the vote in 1971, that dragged the overall turnout rate down even more. Young adults tend to be less settled, and tend not to have the kids and mortgages that connect people to their communities - and to the elected officials who make decisions that affect them.
But what concerns observers most is that as each successive generation matures, a smaller and smaller share is converting to the voting habit. Now, the civic-minded World War II generation is giving way to younger generations that, in growing proportions, never feel compelled to vote.
With just a month to go before election day, expectations for turnout among America's youngest voters have never been lower. In the last presidential election, in 1996, about one-third of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, against overall turnout of 49 percent.
This lack of political involvement is, in part, fueled by cultural differences: Today's youths were born and bred on television, where politics and politicians seldom get positive coverage. Political ads play down party differences, because candidates are always gunning for swing voters. Many young people don't know the difference between Republicans and Democrats.
In addition, many grew up in single-parent households and in families that didn't regularly have dinner together - a setting where children learn parental values, such as the importance of voting.
As concern grows, voter-registration drives and outreach to youths have become more concerted: Rock the Vote, a touring voter-registration bus that started in 1990, has been joined by MTV's Choose or Lose, Rap the Vote, and the Smackdown Your Vote campaign on WWF. On the Web, you don't have to surf too far to find a "register to vote" icon - sometimes with juicy incentives like a college scholarship.
But as turnout advocates discovered with the 1993 federal "motor voter" law - which allowed people to register to vote at motor vehicle departments - just because someone's registered doesn't mean they'll bother to go to the polls. Soon, voter-registration drives will morph into get-out-the-vote campaigns.
THE PROTEST SET
Chadwick Kochanowski, a graduate student in philosophy and literature at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, doesn't vote.
Actually, he did once, when he turned 18, but he hasn't since, "because there's nothing I really care enough about to vote for." He also decries how "commercial" national politics is - but he doesn't see the system changing anytime soon. "It's pretty much controlled tightly by people who want to keep it the way it is," he says.
His alienation is typical of young nonvoters today, many of whom do local volunteer work, but view government - and large institutions in general - as remote and unresponsive.
Along the same lines, but further outside the mainstream, are the legions of young protesters who took to the streets of Seattle, Washington, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Boston during the past year. Their causes are many - and some do vote - but interviews with a smattering of protesters at the summer political conventions revealed that many do not. They don't want to support "the system" by participating in it.
Then there are young adults like Dave Palmer and the three others helping him register voters at the WWF restaurant, who provide a sharp contrast to the young nonvoters coming here to dine.
"My parents were activist, hippyish," says Palmer, who as a child attended antinuclear rallies with his mother. "It instilled in me the values that I have today."
Jose Pardo, a diner at WWF, also demonstrates the kind of pressure family can bring: He walks up to Palmer with his older cousin, ready to register.
"I lied before - I told you I wasn't a citizen," says Mr. Pardo sheepishly. "My cousin talked me into coming back out."
But for every voter-registration victory, there are larger forces weighing against young people engaging in the process. Even the presidential debates that started this week may be alienating young voters: The commission that sets the rules for participation - chaired only by a Republican and a Democrat - has made it difficult for a third-party candidate to qualify. Inclusion of a candidate like Ralph Nader, who has a youthful following, may have attracted more young viewers.
On the eve of Tuesday's first presidential debate, a survey by the Vanishing Voter project at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy reported that only 14 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds planned to watch most of the broadcast. Nearly half planned to watch none of it.
Youth Vote 2000 - a coalition of 75 groups devoted to boosting civic participation among young adults - is circulating petitions to turn the Oct. 17 presidential debate into a youth debate, with young adults choosing the topics and asking the questions. But prospects for this are dim.
The point about America's young adults is not that they're a bunch of apathetic slackers, says Richard Thau, executive director of Third Millennium, an advocacy group for Generation Xers. It's that they're caught in a "cycle of mutual neglect" with politicians.
"The candidates ignore young people, because young people don't vote, and young people ignore candidates, because candidates don't talk to them," says Mr. Thau.
Others call it the "issue gap." Young voters aren't exactly thinking about prescription-drug benefits for seniors - a big campaign issue this fall. They want to hear about education, abortion, affirmative action, and gun control.
Experts on youth voting are hard put to name many campaigns that are making especially big efforts to attract young voters. After all, campaign resources are finite, and rule No. 1 in marketing is to go after the people you've won over in the past. In elections, that rules out most young adults, especially those not in college, who vote in lower numbers than college students and are tougher to locate.
One candidate, however, who is making a special effort to attract the youth vote is Rep. Tom Campbell (R) of California, who's running a longshot campaign to unseat Dianne Feinstein (D) from her seat in the US Senate.
In one television ad, Mr. Campbell - a Stanford University professor - is shown e-mailing a student to ask if he's watching the political convention.
The answer flashes back on the screen: "R U Kidding."
"Why not get involved?" Campbell asks. "Cuz you can't make a difference, right? Wrong! Think like that, and the special interests and big money will always control the political process."
California may be a natural place to try to get out the youth vote: It has one of the youngest populations in the US, including 2.5 million college students.
"Heck, we have nothing to lose," says Andrea Jones, Campbell's campaign manager, herself just out of college and fresh off John McCain's presidential campaign, where she ran youth outreach. "We believe young people could really put us on the map."
In the university town of Madison, Wis., first-term Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) went after the student vote hard two years ago. She recruited legions of young volunteers and ran an essay contest: "Top 10 Reasons to Vote for Tammy Baldwin," with pizza for the winner. When she won a tough primary battle by just 1,500 votes, the local paper proclaimed a "youthquake" had erupted.
This year, she's inviting young people to create an ad aimed at their peers. The winning video will air on television.
Among the presidential campaigns, the Gore camp in particular is making a special outreach to young voters. In addition to organizing volunteers on 600 college campuses, the campaign has put Karenna Gore Schiff, Vice President Al Gore's 20-something daughter, front and center, hosting discussions between her father and young adults.
The Bush campaign also fronted a young family member - nephew George P. Bush - to spearhead youth outreach, but since he began law school this fall, the campaign's youth effort hasn't had as much emphasis.
Overall, the political parties may be starting to "get it" about young voters, says Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida in Tampa, an expert on generational issues in politics.
"This is the first election I've found that, when I call up a political party and ask them to bring somebody to my class to recruit volunteers and get them involved, I'm actually having the phone calls returned quickly," says Ms. MacManus, who also chairs the Florida Elections Commission. "That's a sign the parties know they're on the ropes."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society