Peoria Journal Star

October 18, 2004

Wild cards
Young people voting in large numbers could influence election

of Copley News Service

Jamie Emert of Bartonville won't be voting Nov. 2. She registered two years ago, but she's been too busy to follow the campaign.

"I know it's important, and I'm not proud of it," said 20-year-old Emert, who works full-time in retail sales while taking classes at Illinois Central College.

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

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

Yet many political analysts are predicting more will be 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 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 it reached 58 percent of eligible voters. But even if it reaches the 1960 high of 65 percent, it still leaves one-third of those eligible opting out of the political process. And it 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 since 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 not-for-profit research group that has focused on the youth vote.

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

The decline in voter turnout is blamed on Americans' growing distrust of government that grew out 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.

Stephanie Reed, 19, of Washington forgot to register.

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

Others said they are certain they would vote but were surprised to learn 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 cast their ballots. 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 available.

Grant Woodard, the president of College Democrats of America, said young people - if they choose to vote - could be an important voting bloc 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."

Recent interviews with dozens of central 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 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 in September found.

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

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

"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, 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."

Tessa Collins, 21, a student at Illinois Central College, said she's leaning toward Kerry but wonders whether "it could be dangerous to throw a new president in there" during a war.

"I don't trust either one," said Collins of Bartonville. "In the debates, it's really hard to know who is telling the truth."

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

"Kerry seems more personable, more charismatic, but that's not keeping us safe," said Amy Kellen, 19, of Peoria. The sophomore at Illinois Central College favors Bush.

But Ebonee Younger, 21, a Bradley senior, said she'll vote for Kerry because she believes Bush lied about why he was sending troops to Iraq.

"I don't think we're safer. I think the world is a more dangerous place," said Younger of Chicago.

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

"I don't want to see people losing jobs that are going overseas," said Maeghan Rempala, a Bradley freshman whose father has been laid off twice.

Rempala of Aurora says her parents are "frustrated" Republicans, and she considers herself an independent.

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

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

But Collins 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.

Nearly all 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.