Can Young Voters be Stirred from Slumber?

Patrick Boyle
October 1, 2000

For 19-year-old Brian McCabe, registering young people to vote is very educational: It gives him lots of time to read the newspaper.

That’s what he’s doing as hundreds of students walk past his voter registration table set out on a red brick plaza at Georgetown University. “We’re not too busy,” the Campaign Georgetown co-chair tells a lunchtime visitor. Yards away, 50 students cue up to register for something really important: “Senior Disorientation,” a week of social events that begins with “Jesuit Happy Hour” ($1 beer) and ends with a toga part.

McCabe smiles and say, “Maybe we should serve beer.”

Voting activists are doing just about everything but that in an effort to get young people to the polls next month, at a time when young adult voting in the U.S. is at its lowest point ever. Some of politics’ strangest bedfellows—such as the Pew charitable Trusts and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF)—have laid out million of dollars to break what Youth Vote 2000 Executive Director Julia Cohen calls the “cycle of mutual neglect” between candidates and young people.

Since 18-year-olds won the right to vote in 1972, voting among 18-to-24-year-olds has dropped from 50 percent that year to 32 percent in 1996, the last presidential election. In 1998, the figure was 20 percent. And this year, writes Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, “Virtually nothing can be done that would in any real way affect what I believe will be an historically low turnout…particularly among youth.”

Voting activists are scrambling to prove him wrong; they know it will take a lot more than registration tables at college campuses. They’re walking door-to-door to register voters in poor Oregon neighborhoods, staging hip-hop concerts to lure young people to registration rallies on Long Island, building flashy political web sites aimed at youth, and sending twenty-somethings around the country to produce reports for MTV about the importance of voting. Even the WWF has slammed in, bringing several of its stars to Washington, D.C.’s staid National Press Club to announce that they had registered to vote for the first time (hoping to set an example), and challenging George Bush and Al Gore—to a debate, run by and for youth, in exchange for five free minutes on a WWF program.

“Politics really intimidated me for a long time,” said Chyna. 29, one of the WWF’s most popular wrestlers. “I felt like I was a moron” because she didn’t understand the issues. Elections didn’t matter until “I started making money and paying taxes.”

That’s the challenge: how to convince youths that voting affects their lives when they haven’t yet been hit with property taxes or fretted over insurance for their kids. Even Lita, a 25-year-old WWF champ who stood next to Chyna urging young people to vote, admitted she hadn’t found time to register yet. In Boston, 20-year-old Jesse Levey, co-founder of a national youth-led organization to reform politics called United Leaders, laments that many young people “don’t feel they can change things in politics.” When the

Aspen Institute commissioned focus groups of 18-to-24-year-olds this year, the typical response, in the words of researcher Celinda Lake, was that “it makes more difference to work in a soup kitchen in the afternoon than to vote.”

Turned Off

That’s what’s puzzling: Young people are not apathetic. Much has been made of the fact that they perform community service as much as, if not more than, any generation in American history. Yet as much as any generation ever, they consider civic and political involvement irrelevant. “it’s an uphill battle” to get young people to vote, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at a Youth Vote 2000 party at the Hard Rock Café in Philadelphia during the GOP convention.

“It’s not necessarily a cynical group, because they feel very good about the future, but it’s a very apolitical group,” says Kay Albowicz, communications director for the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS).

The reasons have been explored in numerous surveys by organizations such as Project Vote Smart, Neglection 2000 and Do Something: Young people feel they don’t know enough about candidate and the issues, they don’t know hot to register, they prefer to put their efforts into something with direct results (like volunteering), they don’t see themselves and their concerns reflected in media coverage of politics, and they don’t see politicians reaching out to them. In a 1999 NASS poll of 1,000 15-to-24-year-olds, 67 percent agreed that “our generation has an important voice but no one seems to hear it.”

Comfort contributes to the political shoulder-shrugging. During the 1972 presidential race, George McGovern’s young volunteers marched through campus warning, “We’re going to die in the jungle if we don’t stop this war!” This generation has no Vietnam, no galvanizing issue that makes them feel they have something at stake in who gets elected.

Candidates respond in kind, feeling they have little stake in young people’s votes. Always looking for the most efficient use of their money, time and staff, they see little justification to spend such resources on a population that doesn’t vote much. When The Third Millennium’s Neglection 2000 project analyzed this year’s presidential primary advertising in four media markets (Manchester, N.H., Greenville, S.C., New York City and Los Angeles), it found that the TV ads reached three to six times as many people over 50 as people between 18 and 34. That’s because of the programs on which the ads appeared: 36 ran on “Friends,” for instance, while 651 ran on the “Today” show.

“The campaigns should not solely be faulted,” Third Millennium, a New York-based civic advocacy group, wrote in a report on the ads. “Forty-four percent of ads run during news programs. If young adults made more of an effort to watch news programs and stay informed, they would see these ads.”

This is the cycle of mutual neglect that no one seems to know how to break: “Candidates usually ignore the, so they ignore candidates,” says David Skaggs, executive director of Aspen’s Democracy & Citizenship Project and a former Democratic Congressman from Colorado.

The Aspen Institute began distributing a “candidate’s toolkit” in July to summarize research about young people’s attitudes toward politics and explain how to better reach them. (Among the solutions: “Draw connections between political issues and young people’s lives.”) The title, “30 Million Missing Voters,” highlights the potential voting power of the country’s 18-to25-year-old population.

Reaching out to those voters sounds like the right thing to do, but candidates “are not in this business in the short run to improve democracy,” says Micheal Delli Carpini, director of Pew’s public policy program. “They’re in it for getting elected” so they can accomplish what compelled them to run for office. “It’s not unreasonable for a candidate to say, “I’m not going to devote my resources if I’m not going to get a return in terms of people coming out to vote.”

That’s why Youth In Action, headed by Peter Raducah, got no satisfactory responses when it invited the major presidential candidates to its Youth Conventions near the Republican and Democratic Party conventions this year. (Ralph Nader came to one, and John Hagelin to the other.) Youth at the conventions did hammer out youth platforms, which they sent to the presidential candidates and posted on their website.

But the major focus has been on the youth side of the deadlock. No one has more at stake financially than Pew, which over the past two years has awarded at least $3 million in grants to initiatives aimed at educating youth about the political process and getting them to participate in it. Perhaps the biggest initiative is Youth Vote 2000, which, via a grant through the League of Women Voters, is spending $800,000 of Pew’s money.

Get Off Campus

Ed Dennis has spent much of the past three months at hip-hop concerts, county fairs, farmer’s markets and malls. It’s a tough job.

Especially when you’re something of a drag at the party, trying to get people to momentarily turn their attention from socializing to voting. The youth vote coalition that Dennis coordinates has set up registration efforts at 50 such events this year. “We’re just trying to go where people are,” says Dennis, executive director of the Oregon Student Association.

His coalition is one of 22 field offices set up around the country by Youth Vote 2000, each with a $19,000 grant. Their mission: create a sustainable coalition of organizations to work on getting young people to vote, register young people to vote, and hold candidate “youth debates” run by young people. The money pays for some staff (Oregon has two full-time field organizers), with local coalition members also picking up costs and contributing staff time and services. In the New York coalition, for example, New York Public Interest Research Group staffers help run the coalition. Youth Vote 2000’s Washington D.C., headquarters provides technical assistance and support, like computer disks with art for posters and bumper stickers.

The coalitions are getting some candidates and young people to show interest in each other. The Oregon group lined up 10 youth debates, all with candidates for state offices (mostly the legislature). The debates features a youth moderator and a panel of college students or other young people involved in community organizations. Audience members ask questions as well. Among the questions at the first debate: How about a special school for foster kids?

The Oregon coalition registered 4,000 (mostly young) people over the summer, Dennis says, largely by avoiding a time-honored locale for such efforts: college campuses. Ryan Friedrichs, who oversees the field office activities for Youth Vote 2000, stressed to organizers that their target is 18-to-30-year-olds, and “the majority of those folks are not on campus. This has to be outreach to communities, to young families.”

Get ‘Em Sober

To accomplish that, the Oregon group has set up registration site more then 50 events. In about half, the event organizers don’t let them in; they have to work the crowds outside. “They want their people in there to buy beer and wine and not be harassed,” says Dennis, who understands that “they’re trying to make money. They’re not trying to save our democracy.”

Even when they’ve been let in, “we’ve been told at a couple of events, ‘You have to sit here behind the table, you can’t come up to people.’ We break the rules, we do it anyways.”

This is not to dismiss campuses; the field offices go there as well. The New York office plans a statewide van tour of campuses and neighborhood venues like the Arbor Hill Community Center and a street corner in Syracuse. At Georgetown University, McCabe’s Campaign Georgetown registered 360 students in the first two weeks of school, not bad considering that most of the students are not from Washington and have no interest in registering locally.

In Oregon, the coalition-building kept one group away from a campus, X-pac, a group of Generation Xers involved in youth activism, decided to conduct voter registration outreach at Portland State University—until Dennis’ student association pointed out that it was already there. The two groups decided to focus on a new venue: a nearby suburb with a lot young people in high tech jobs. In that case, Dennis says, the coalition-building helped the organization use their time better.

But how much can Dennis excite people about voting while standing on their stoops? That’s why entertainment continues to play a growing role in youth voting efforts. The Hollywood-based Rock the Vote tours the country holding rallies to register voters and try to excite people about elections. The rallies lure people with food and music before hitting them with the good citizenship message. When Rock the Vote visited Portland this summer, 400 people registered.

In New York, the coalition brought a hip-hop band to a Long Island campus for a registration rally. Coordinator Dave Palmer says the group also does registration at nightclubs, where the challenge is “to get them before they get too drunk.”

MTV Generation

The deeper challenge is to get into youth culture so that young people hear about voting not just at special events, but also in the routine of their lives. That means reaching them through the media, including the Internet.

Perhaps the most aggressive media outlet has been MTV, with its Chooser or Lose Campaign urging young people to vote. MTV’s “Street Team” of four twenty-something reporters has been touring the country to produce reports that are part civic lesson, part generational confession (with young people looking clueless when asked, “Who’s your Congressman?”), and part motivation. The team is not apologetic for its generation. Street Team reporter Gideon Yago, 21, stood before YIA’s Youth Convention in Philadelphia in August said, “You’re ignored by your politicians. That’s because you don’t vote. … We are not proactive as a generation.”

Numerous websites are dedicated to getting youths more information about issues, candidates and the electoral process, such as Third Millennium and Rock the Vote (which carries stories from the major media.) New York’s Youth Vote 2000 site allows visitors to fill out registration forms on line (they still have to be mailed in) and helps them find out who their elected representatives are.

One site, yvote 2000, is produced by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, which won a grant (from who else, Pew) to improve political news coverage for 18-to24-year-olds. Student reporters in its Washington, D.C., bureau produce reports for more than 500 college newspapers, more than 100 college TV stations, and more than 100 non-college news outlets.

Youth Vote 2000 is pressing for the biggest media event of all: a presidential debate focused on youth issues, moderated by a young person. It has gathered more than 20,000 signatures on petitions for the debate, and plans to rally 500 young people outside the first presidential debate in Boston in early October to press the cause.

Is a Million Enough?

What will all this accomplish?

In Oregon, Dennis’s coalition is shooting for 27,500 new registrations. In New York, the coalition wants 50,000 new registrations, including 20,000 students. But as Ryan Friedrichs of Youth Vote 2000 says, “The fact that they’re registered doesn’t mean they’re going to vote.”

Several of the organizations will use traditional techniques to get people out on Election Day: calling, knocking on doors, even driving people to the polls. “It couldn’t be any easier to vote here,” says McCabe at Georgetown. Some have voting goals: New York wants to get 74 percent of the people it registers to actually vote, says upstate coordinator Jocelyn McGuiness-Hickey.

What does Pew expect for its money? “We’re not anticipating incredible increases in voter turnout among young people in the 2000 election,” Delli Carpini says. But in the long run, Pew wants to see more young people voting and candidates paying more attention to young people’s issues.

If that doesn’t happen, it won’t be for lack of trying. Says Albowicz at the secretaries of state association, “There are a million voter groups out there trying to help young people.” They’ll soon find out if a million is enough.


Michael Delli Carpini


Public Policy Program

Pew Charitable Trusts

2005 Market St., Ste. 1700

Philadelphia, PA 19103-7077

(215) 575-9050

Ed Dennis

Executive Director

Oregon Student Association

685 Cottage St., NE

Salem, OR 97301

(503) 588-1571


Ryan Friedrichs

Youth Vote 2000

1730 M St., NW, Ste. 1000

Washington, DC 20036

(202) 262-0521

Brian McCabe

Campaign Georgetown

Box 572183

Georgetown University

Washington, DC 20057

(202) 784-8555



Can Young Voters be Stirred from Slumber?: Politics Is Fun, Really...

Boyle, Patrick. "Can Young Voters be Stirred from Slumber?" Youth Today, October 2000, p. 56.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.