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Effort Under Way to Encourage More Young Americans to Vote - 2004-02-13

A majority of America's youngest voters stayed away from the polls in the 2000 presidential election, according to U.S. census data, underscoring the widely-held view that young adults are apathetic. For their part, many young people say they ignore the candidates, because they feel the candidates ignore them. National efforts are under way to get more young Americans interested in and involved in the political process.

Kristen Heal, a college student from Tennessee, says it is not lack of interest in politics. It is just that she and many of her peers find it boring.

"I know that, sometimes, debates can be long and drawn out, and they're not quite entertaining," she said.

Groups like World Wrestling Entertainment, the Hip Hop Summit Action Network and MTV, have teamed up with the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and the Youth Vote Coalition to try to spark interest among young voters.

The groups launched a campaign that includes a brochure highlighting the main issues of concern for 18 to 30-year-olds, the economy, Iraq and national security, education and a candidate's motivation and vision. The campaign's goal is to register 20 million young people to vote.

Kay Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters, reminds young adults that more of them have to get involved, if they want to influence U.S. politics.

"One single vote might not make a difference, despite what we all say, but lots of individual votes do add up," she said. "There are over 40 million 18 to 30-year-olds in this country. And 40 million votes do matter."

One wrestling star, John Cena, recently appealed to an audience of young people to go to the polls. He wore the typical attire of many of America's youth - a T-shirt, yellow vest, backward baseball cap and a silver chain around his neck.

"Look at me," said Mr. Cena. "I'm not [wearing a] suit and tie. I'm not white collar America. I'm calling everybody out. We have a voice. 2004. Get out. Vote. Make sure your voice is heard."

Did it matter that it was a celebrity and not a politician who delivered the message? Twenty-three-year-old Brian Clarke, from California, says, yes.

"I think today was a good example of showing who we look at, in terms of who we respect and who we listen to," he said. "We didn't have senators up there pushing the youth vote."

Another umbrella group of high school organizations, called Freedom's Answer, is trying to encourage even younger people to become politically involved, before they reach the voting age of 18. This group was formed shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The young students may sound idealistic. But 16-year-old Puneet Gambhir, from the Freedom's Answer national advisory council, says there are concrete issues young people care about, such as education, health care and being responsible for paying off U.S. debts in the future, when people of her generation may be footing the bill.

She says for those reasons, young people should get involved, and everyone should pay attention to the young generation's views.

"If you don't care about the people who are going to be running this country when this generation [currently in power] is going to be sitting in a nursing home, then that seems very shallow," said Puneet Gambhir.

The goal for Freedom's Answer is to bring 25 million voters to the polls. Since most high school students are not old enough to vote themselves, the group is working to get 2.5 million students to each pledge to ensure that 10 people who are eligible to vote go to the polls.

Ms. Gambhir says kids know how to relate to other kids.

"If I'm talking to the guy from Virginia, and he's interested in football, [is a] diehard football fan - I tell him, 'you know, we have a program - Friday night football - where we got all these people coming to the football games," she said. "And you know what they also do, they collect voter pledges. You know, suddenly, there's that interest - 'oh really?' Suddenly it clicks. It's like, that's so cool. [They think that's great.]"

Since 1920, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters has informed Americans about their government, and encouraged greater civic participation.

League president Kay Maxwell says voting rates among all age groups have been declining in U.S. elections. But she says she is especially concerned about the low turnout among the youngest American voters.

"They're the future of the country," she said. "And if they're not engaged or paying attention to the issues, then those that are engaged are the ones who will be making the decisions that affect everyone."

Ms. Maxwell says there are many contemporary issues that may draw more young people to the voting booth this year.

"I think some of the issues of national security, of peers serving in the military, coming out of high school and college, and the economy and job situation," she said. "I think, perhaps, at this point in time, there are issues that are confronting us that perhaps may be resonating a little more with young people."

She says, as far as increasing youth participation in American politics, all the signs are pointing in the right direction. But, she says, the real proof will be in how many of them actually turn out to vote.