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Young US Voters Say, 'Yes, We Can'


Young Americans played a big role in this year's election. From the beginning of the election cycle, young people were energized and actively involved in the campaigns. On Election Day, the youth vote turnout was higher than ever. As VOA's Faiza Elmasry tells us, experts say young people realized this is a crucial time of transition, and they wanted to be part of the change.

Young people often have been criticized for their political disinterest and lack of drive. But in the 2008 election, the nation's youngest voters proved to be important players in the political game.

Erica Williams is spokeswoman for Campus Progress, a nonpartisan group that helps young people make their voices heard on a variety of issues.

"Around 24 million young Americans between the age of 18 and 29 years old did turn out and vote," she says. "That's an increase of over two million compared to the exit polls in 2004."

On Election Day, she says, thousands of young people were willing to stand in long lines for hours in order to vote. Many, like Annabell Gould, live far from their home districts and mailed in absentee ballots.

"Well, I voted because I think it's my civic duty to do so," the Vanderbilt University senior says. She adds that an eighth grade teacher sparked an awareness of her civic duties and rights.

"It was actually the 2000 election. He had us study very closely what was going on in politics," Gould says. "Then, over the next eight years or so since then, I had this innate interest in what was going on.

"Then, in the past two years or so, I think there was this major need for change from my generation, and that also inspired me to not only vote myself, but to try to get other people in the 18 to 24 age bracket involved and actually casting their ballot on the Election Day."

Economy, Health Care Major Issues for Young Voters

Polls show that more than two-thirds of young voters preferred President-elect Barack Obama to Senator John McCain. Gould was a member of that majority, as was Cameron Cook of the University of California in Santa Cruz.

"I felt that he represented my views," he says. "I also felt that as a kind of a new generational leader, he would bring in a different way of thinking about issues."

"We know that young people are affected by four major issues, which most Americans are affected by," says Stephanie Young, who represents Rock the Vote, an organization focused on building the political power of young people. She says this year, the economy was the most important issue for them.

"People graduating from schools without jobs, they can't find jobs that pay enough or provide health care, and that [inability to get or afford health care] is definitely a huge issue," Young says. "The third issue is some young people want to go to college, but they don't have the opportunity to do that because it's so expensive, and their parents cannot afford it.

"Last, not least, is the war in Iraq. Young people have always fought against this war from day one. They're fighting it. It's something they want to see changed."

Young credits Obama's campaign for successfully reaching out to young voters.

"President-elect Obama did an exceptional job in tapping into the youth voter's movement that has been built since 2004," she says. "He talked to young people on their level. He used Facebook and MySpace and all the Internet social network sites to reach people early on in the campaign.

"He also had an excellent college campus outreach system that really spoke to young people and spoke to their issues and made them think he was the best candidate."

Youth Encouraged to Keep up Political Activism Post-Election

Young voters certainly made their mark on this election. But David Madland of the Center for American Progress says casting a ballot is not the final step.

"This generation is very large," he says. "They are nearly as large as the Baby Boomers. This election was just the beginning. I think we've seen a transfer of power from the older generations to the younger generations in this election.

"Young people are energized and more involved than they had been in politics for a long time. It's not just about voting. If you look at all other kinds of things - volunteering, talking to their friends about politics, reading the newspapers - all these signs, they are very active and involved.

"They also are demanding progressive changes. So this is likely to have impacts both in the immediate future but for many, many years, because the kinds of attitudes and opinions that people form early in their political life, they are likely to carry with them into the future."

Young voter Cameron Cook agrees. He predicts his generation will continue to influence the policies of the new administration.

"This election is almost like getting into college," he says. "It's great that you got into college. And it's great that we elected potentially an amazing leader, but the work is not done. We've a lot of work ahead of us. We shouldn't be lazy."

Young people have to move forward to the next level of political participation, according to Erica Williams of Campus Progress.

"We don't expect that everything is going to happen the day after the inauguration," she says. "We realize that President-elect Obama needs our support to make these policies actually happen. So young people are ready to work hard.

"One of the things we're looking into now is encouraging more young people to actually run for office, encouraging young people to take this political power that they have gotten from voting and actually moving it more into the system and be able to run for office and hold positions."

William says she hopes the momentum that this year's election has created will inspire more young people to get involved in public life, influence policy-makers and make their voices heard as the emerging leaders of the future.

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