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Study:  Most Young US Voters Unlikely to Take Part in Election - 2004-08-19

In what's shaping up to be a tight presidential election this fall, polls indicate that the vast majority of voters have already made their decision. But one group that remains potentially up for the taking is the youth vote, voters casting ballots for the first time. However, the challenge is getting these voters registered and to the polls on election day.

Throughout history, it's always been tough to get young people interested in voting.

"I don't care about voting," said A.J. Reynold. "I really don't care, honestly, because I really don't think about it."

A.J. Reynold, 20, shares the attitude of many young people, at least according to statistics. In California, only one in five voters under age 25 are likely to vote on Election Day. A mere 63 percent are registered, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The numbers are bleak, but this trend could be changing in California.

"I think there's some early indications that this election cycle could bring record numbers of younger adults to the polls," said John Cohen.

John Cohen is the associate survey director at the Public Policy Institute of California. He says while young adults have always been less politically active, the entertainment and media culture are forcing them into the political fray.

"This is the first election where both major parties have important and coordinate Internet campaigns," he said. "Beyond the Internet, young adults eligible to vote may also react more strongly to this year's celebrity 'get out the vote' drives, and films designed to get them motivated to vote such as Michael Moore's Farenheit 9-11." Many political pundits are also comparing this year's election to 1972, when young voters came out in droves to voice their opinions about the Vietnam war and the draft. Barbara O'Conner, professor of politics and media at California State University in Sacramento, says the Iraq war could have the same effect.

"I think it could increase [the youth vote] because certainly they're [young adults] very concerned about the likelihood of serving in Iraq, and the whole issue of the war, and that's starting to percolate on college campuses," she said. Ms. O'Conner adds, however, that while nearly everybody has an opinion on the war, recent history does not bode well for political strategists trying to lure the young voting bloc. Nationally, Ms. O'Conner says it's a group that's always been very hard to get to the polls on Election Day.

"You're very lucky if you get 30 percent of those eligible to vote at the college age population out," she says. "That's on a good year. And the things that students say, or that age group says, when you talk to them about voting, is that they really don't know enough about the issues. They don't think their vote makes a difference, they don't' like politicians, and so that's the rationale they give for not voting." Another potential problem in states like California, is that the choice for president has already largely been decided. California leans heavily for Democrat John Kerry. This fact could dissuade young voters - and older ones for that matter - from heading to the polls, as they may feel that their vote is irrelevant. But in Berkeley, California, groups such as "Mobilizing America's Youth" are trying to persuade young people to get involved in the election anyway. They remind voters that the November election also involves local issues, as well as state and national ones. UC Berkeley graduate David Smith, 24, is the group's executive director.

"We really live by the definition, of whatever that issue is, whatever is most important element of their personal life, that's their politics," he said. "From there we start the conversation." Mr. Smith says small teams of activists are fanning out throughout the nation, trying to get young people engaged in politics. Right now, he says the most important issue for young Californians is potential cuts to school funding and rising education costs.

"If the most important issue to you is the rising cost of tuition, the person you need to be talking to and the race you need to be caring about is your local assembly member, your state senator, because they're the ones that make those decisions," he said. "Even down to your local school board, they're the ones that make the direct decisions upon you." While the push continues to get young people to register to vote, in California there's been little effect so far. According to the latest data, the percentage of registered voters in the state has stayed flat at 69 percent, over the past four years.