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Youth vote more important than ever – and groups are reaching out

Renee Gilinger was on Philadelphia’s South Street recently asking the youthful, jeans-and-T-shirt crowd waiting in line for a heavy-metal concert, “Are you planning to vote?”

Gilinger’s outreach is part of what is shaping up to be the nation’s biggest and most expensive effort ever to get out the youth vote.

“It’s crazy to ignore this constituency,” said Gilinger, Pennsylvania director for the Young Voter Alliance, a coalition of Democratic and Independent groups working to register young people in five swing-vote states, including Pennsylvania.

“I got names and contact information for 40 to 50 people,” she said. “That’s 40 to 50 people who never might have been asked” to vote.

Dozens of partisan and nonpartisan groups have mobilized, ranging from mainstays such as Rock the Vote and MTV Choose or Lose to niche groups such as PunkVoter.com and faith-based Redeem the Vote.

They hope to reverse a downward trend in youth voting over three decades.

In the last presidential election, only 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds eligible to vote did vote, compared with 72 percent of eligible people older than 30.

In a tight presidential race, “a few thousand votes one way or the other could make a big difference,” said Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

There are a number of explanations for why young people do not vote.

Some say it is a matter of obstacles: Registering or getting absentee ballots can seem difficult, especially if you are away at school. Others say civic participation is no longer engrained in youth, the way volunteerism is. And many young people say they are turned off by negative politics.

So what will it take to get 18- to 29-year-olds – a group that is split fairly evenly among Democrats, Republicans and independents – to the polls this November?

Will it take street-level, personal canvassing like that on South Street? Appeals from celebrities? Or more high-tech approaches?

Or will it be the issues?

“I have a lot of friends in the war” in Iraq, Kelly Broll, 19, of Philadelphia, said. “One friend died over there. It’s a big issue for me.”

For Corinne Ertel, who also waited in line for the concert, this election is about jobs.

“I’m definitely voting,” the 23-year-old Philadelphia resident said. “I had to find three new jobs in the last two years. I had to take a cut in my pay. Taxes have gone up. I find it harder to pay my bills. I’m still a kid. I should still have fun.”

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 53 percent of registered voters 18 to 29 years old said they had given a lot of thought to the coming election, compared with 35 percent in 2000.

Still, academics who study youth voting say it is unclear whether anything will work.

“Do I expect voter turnout to be greater this year? Not really,” said Donald Green, a political science professor at Yale University who has done extensive research on voting patterns since 1998.

Political parties, he said, have done a poor job of addressing youth issues. Campaigns “don’t tend to focus on young people because they don’t tend to vote,” Green said. “But if you ignore young people, then they don’t vote. It gets into a vicious cycle.”

Concerned about that cycle, the Pew Charitable Trusts has given $9 million to the New Voters Project, a nonpartisan group that aims to register 265,000 18- to 24-year-olds in six swing-vote states: Colorado, Iowa, Oregon, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Nevada.

“Voting is an acquired habit,” Pew president Rebecca Rimel said. “Some people say young people are distracted: Once they get a house and kids, they’ll vote. But they won’t. So, in 10 to 15 years, you’ve got less than half of the people participating in what is arguably our most important civic responsibility.”

Besides the Pew money, an additional $30 million has been raised for this election by five other nonpartisan groups: Rock the Vote, MTV Choose or Lose, Declare Yourself, Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and Smack Down Your Vote.

William Galston, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, called the nonpartisan effort “the biggest push by civic coalitions outside the political-party system that we’ve seen, maybe ever.”

Untold more is being spent by Democrats and Republicans. Party officials did not return calls seeking comment on their efforts. But the Young Voter Alliance has $1.3 million, from Democratic, Independent and Green sources. And the College Republican National Committee has raised $5.5 million.

Green said face-to-face canvassing could be the most effective strategy.

“Having a chatty, informal conversation on somebody’s doorstep has more of an effect,” Green said. “When you come to my doorstep, your presence is signaling the importance of the election.”

In research involving thousands of voters, Green found that spam e-mails, even when opened, had almost no impact.

It is not that young people “have more alienated attitudes than before,” he said. “It’s the simple fact that campaigns are more computerized… and their names don’t come up on lists.”

Some young people, however, view canvassers as a nuisance, or of limited impact.

“On the street, I don’t think anyone’s going to register to vote,” said Sara Levine, 20, a Penn junior. “When I’m approached on the street, I’m going somewhere else. I think there are better ways of informing people.”

Ertel said: “It may give people encouragement when it comes to registering to vote. But I believe that, if one doesn’t have the mind-set to care about the election process, no amount of canvassing will change that.”

Some get-out-the-youth-vote groups say Internet-based efforts are working just fine.

Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan voter-education group founded by television producer Norman Lear, said more than 400,000 people have downloaded registration forms from its site (www.declareyourself.com) since November.

Declare Yourself president Cherie Simon said Princeton University research showed that the Internet could be effective because of the time young people spend using it.

In the last few weeks, Declare Yourself – which was launched in 2001 with celebrities reading the Declaration of Independence at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – has been sending via e-mail a red-white-and-blue virtual button that helps young people register.

Rock the Vote decided this year to hedge its bets and use all three get-out-the-youth-vote methods: canvassing, celebrity pitches and the Internet.

“They all work in conjunction,” Rock the Vote president Jehmu Greene said.

Greene said Rock the Vote had 52 “street teams” that did peer-to-peer canvassing and an online registration operation on its site (www.rockthevote.com). The group continues to use musicians and actors to deliver pro-voting messages.

Lola Bakare, a Penn junior majoring in English, said she thought celebrity pitches often lacked substance.

“At the MTV Video Music Awards, the Kerry daughters said: ‘We think the youth should vote for our dad.’ The Bush sisters said the same thing” about voting for their father, Bakare said. “People were booing. You think we’re that dumb?… They’re just being sensational and cool. They should say: ‘We can help you pay your student loans on time.'”

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