The dwindling youth vote: Where will it be in 2004?

Plain and simple: Young people don't vote in the numbers they used to. When 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote in 1972, the turnout of 18- to 24-year-old voters was a healthy 52 percent. But it dropped steadily to 38 percent in 2000.

Why are young people - critical to our nation's future - voting in drastically lower numbers? How can we bring them back?

The primary issue at stake in 1972 was the Vietnam War. The government didn't make the case that the war was necessary. America's youth realized that they were the ones that would be killed, maimed, or threatened in the jungle overseas. To them, voting and political activism were matters of life and death, of war and peace.

Youth don't see such a real threat today, given the much smaller American losses of the Iraq wars (100 in each Iraq war versus 57,000 in Vietnam), the hyperbole the government repeatedly used for the current war, and the fact that service is now voluntary. So youth don't consider voting as important as they once did.

But there are real, potent, and persuasive issues that, if the message gets out, young people could, should, and would care about.

Joblessness is at a nine-year high of 6.1 percent. Youth look forward to graduation from high school and college, only to be thrown into the "real world" and smacked in the face with meager employment opportunities. An ABC News headline in May screamed, "With No Jobs, 60% of Class of 2003 Moving Back With Parents." Not realizing the importance of national decisions affecting the economy, including the deficit, productivity, and whom tax cuts target, young people did not vote.

Fewer and fewer people - especially people with low-paying or no jobs - can afford healthcare. Two million more people are uninsured now than two years ago, and a growing share of those uninsured are young people. Youth generally feel great and see themselves as invincible. But do they care about their parents? Their grandparents? Sick friends? We know they do; regular conversations with parents are responsible for a 30 percent decrease in drug use according to a Columbia University study. Let's convert this sense of responsibility to the polls.

Do young people really want to be excluded from decisions about our planet's environmental future - regarding toxic waste, air pollution, water pollution, and global warming - by leaving those decisions to adults and corporations? Do they want others to decide the limits of their freedom on the Internet?

And where are the political parties in all of this? They haven't put enough effort into reenergizing the youth vote. Compared with political-party involvement in 1972, today's parties don't seem tocare. They need to revert to strategies used by parties in 1972: news conferences, a national voter-registration drive, and TV and radio spots.

The Democratic National Committee in 1972 enlisted now-famous presidential speech analyst and political commentator Kathleen Hall Jamieson and her students at the University of Maryland to produce and distribute powerful voter registration spots to 4,000 radio stations and 1,000 TV stations. Both parties and nonpartisan groups like Common Cause, Youth Citizenship Fund, and others - with whom the party youth apparatuses worked closely - set up youth-voter-registration organizations in every state and regularly had forums, debates, workshops, and news events across the country urging youth to vote. The record turnout of youth in 1972 was no accident; it was the result of hard work in publicizing meaningful issues.

And candidates need to figure out how to connect with young people, whether reaching out to them on campuses or pioneering interviews on youth-oriented media. The only uptick in the youth vote since 1972 was when 48 percent of eligible youth turned out in 1992 after candidate Bill Clinton played the sax on MTV.

Americans are told every vote counts, and the 2000 presidential election reinforced this notion. Voting is a right that has been fought for and defended, and a democracy can exist only when citizens are willing to take part in their government. Everyone has a voice - the only way to influence the way our country is run in the long term is for young people to express theirs. Adults have a responsibility to make that happen.

Robert Weiner, a political consultant, was director of youth-voter registration for National Young Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign and a public-affairs director in the Clinton White House. Amy Rieth is a member of Young Republicans at North Carolina State University.

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