Springfield Journal Register

October 18, 2004

Young voters show interest in election
But many still do not plan to vote


By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

Barbara Sutheard of Springfield won't be voting Nov. 2. She chose not even to register.

"I just don't feel involved enough," said the 19-year-old full-time student at Lincoln Land Community College who works 29 hours a week. "I don't want to go through the hassle."

She won't be the only one who doesn't show up at the polls on Election Day.

In 2000, 54 percent of all eligible voters cast ballots. Young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are historically the least likely to vote.

Yet many political analysts are predicting a surge in voting this year, based on record voter registrations around the country and polls showing increased interest - especially among young people - in the presidential campaign between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

"The whole presidency of George Bush is a lightning rod for supporters and detractors, and it's very emotional. What brings people to the polls is motivation, and they've got a lot of motivation this year," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

Gans and others predict the turnout will be as high or higher than in 1992, when turnout reached 58 percent of eligible voters. But even if turnout reaches the 1960 high of 65 percent, that still leaves one-third of those eligible opting out of the political process. And any improvement this year, if it occurs, isn't expected to permanently reverse the steady decline in voting by all ages in recent decades.

Nationally, youth voting has declined by 13 percent from 1972, when 18- to-20-year-olds were given the right to vote, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a nonprofit research group that has focused on the youth vote.

Those who don't vote tend to be younger, poorer and less educated than those who do. They're typically less involved in their community. Young people are more likely to vote if their parents do.

The decline in turnout is blamed on Americans' growing distrust of government that grew out of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Societal changes including declines in newspaper reading and civic education, more television channels, longer commutes and busier, more stressful lives also play a part, Gans said.

Those who will acknowledge they don't plan to vote frequently say they don't have time or that they're turned off by politicians.

"I'm not much of a political person," said Alexander Partridge, 19, of Cantrall. Although his family is politically active, he said he has a general distrust of politicians.

He also is cynical of celebrities' efforts to encourage a greater youth turnout.

"If teenagers want to vote, they should do it on their own, not vote like drones," Partridge said.

Stephanie Reed, 19, of Washington forgot to register.

"I'm too busy," the Illinois Central College student said. Besides, she added, "I'm not big on politics. It confuses me."

As Sutheard explained, "We're at the time of our lives when we're not fully matured yet. We're a little bit self-absorbed."

Others said they are certain they would vote but were surprised to learn that they had missed the registration deadline earlier this month.

Nationally, hundreds of thousands of new, young voters are being registered as part of an effort by nonpartisan "get out the vote" groups as well as the two major political parties.

Celebrities appear on MTV to urge young people to vote. Web sites offer online registration. College Republicans and Democrats have mounted vast registration and mobilization efforts in key states.

"The Florida recount was kind of a wake-up call that said your vote could actually matter," said Alison Aikele, spokesman for the College Republican National Committee.

The nonpartisan New Voters Project has registered more than 320,000 18- to 24-year-olds in six swing states, said spokesman Ivan Frishberg.

"It's a close election. We are a nation at war. And clearly young people have seen that this is an important time and they need to be involved in that," Frishberg said.

But the efforts have focused on battleground states, and Illinois isn't one. While local jurisdictions in Illinois have reported record high registration numbers, no statewide total is yet available.

Grant Woodard, the president of College Democrats of America, said young people - if they choose to vote - could be important in what is expected to be a close election.

"The student demographic is the stealth demographic of the race," said Woodard, 21, a junior history major at Grinnell College in Iowa. "We're not really polled that well by Gallup. Many of us have cell phones. A lot of other polls take into account people who voted in past presidential elections."

Recent interviews with dozens of Illinois young people indicate that many are closely following the campaign, their interest sparked by issues such as the war in Iraq, the economy and gay marriage.

In contrast, many area students four years ago said they found it difficult to relate when the candidates were concentrating on issues such as Social Security and Medicare.

One month before the last presidential election, an MTV survey found one-fourth of people ages 18 to 24 couldn't name both presidential candidates without prompting. But a recent MTV poll showed 39 percent in that age bracket said they definitely would vote this year, up 9 percentage points from 2000.

One in five 25- to 30-year-olds plans to vote for the first time, indicating they weren't motivated to do so four years ago, an MTV/CIRCLE poll found in September.

Angelic Gordon, 27, of Peoria is one of them.

"In the last election, I really wasn't interested," Gordon said. "We have kids now so we're thinking about the future."

She also said she's moved to vote this time because she opposes many of the things Bush is doing.

"I just don't think Bush is doing a good job, as far as the war, the economy, and for the black community," said Gordon, who is African-American.

Blacks and other minorities have in the past been less likely to vote than white Americans, but some are predicting larger turnouts for blacks this year as well, as a result of voter-registration drives and the disproportionately large number of ballots cast from black neighborhoods in Florida that weren't counted.

So far, young voters are evenly split between Bush and Kerry, with 24 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds undecided, according to an early October survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. They're also more apt to change their support than older voters, surveys have shown.

Christy Moss, 21, a junior at Bradley University, watched one of the debates with her Bible study group, whose members were for Bush. She watched another with a group of fellow future social workers, who were all for Kerry.

"I don't know who I'm voting for yet so I was just trying to look at both sides, and it was really hard to do that because if I said something that was pro-Kerry with my Bible study group, I would be skinned alive," Moss said. "It's sort of a hot spot to be in depending on which group you're with."

The war in Iraq is the top concern among many area young people.

"I think a lot of people think it's an important election this year because of the war - because they either agree or disagree with the president in his views," said David Schlosser, 23, of Springfield.

Schlosser, who is unemployed and leaving this month to join the U.S. Marines, voted for Bush via an absentee ballot.

The economy also is chief on the mind of many students, who worry about the job market after graduation.

"We've always been under the impression that you go to college and you get a job. But some people aren't finding jobs," said Kenny Humble, 22, a music major at Lincoln Land Community College.

Gay marriage is a big reason that Matt Averbeck, 20, of Petersburg supports Bush.

"I think we need to protect marriage," he said.

But Tessa Collins, 21, of Bartonville opposes Bush for his proposal of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

"I think it's our right to live our life with who we want," said Collins, a student at Illinois Central College.

Nearly all the young people interviewed said they thought it was important to vote, and those who planned to do so credited their parents' influence and classroom discussions on the campaign.

Just a few months ago, "I didn't feel at liberty to talk about it or even have opinions because I didn't know anything that was going on," said Selina Pritchard, 19, of Pleasant Plains. "I think just being more informed, not even necessarily about what Bush and Kerry are doing, but just knowing how it all works, made me more interested in it."

"A lot of it has come from my family," she said. But she also credits "an amazing" American politics teacher for increasing her understanding of the process.

"I'm going to vote because that's what I've been taught. Maybe some people haven't been taught or they just don't care," said Pritchard, a nursing student at LLCC.