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Politics Mondays: Young Adult Voters Still Rare Nationally, But Improved Slightly by Raechal Leone

One in four.

Those numbers are the reason for all those commercials in which P. Diddy told people to "Vote or Die," why MTV pleads with viewers to "Choose or Lose" at election time and why older generations bemoan the demise of civics lessons in schools.

One in four is the number of 18- to 29-year-olds nationwide who voted in the 2006 midterm election. Yep, only about 26 percent of young people voted in the election that handed control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate to the Democrats for the first time since 1994, according to the non-profit, non-partisan organization CIRCLE, which studies voting patterns of young people.

In Maryland, the numbers were higher, more like 1 in 3, with 33 percent of young voters casting a ballot; enough to make the state the eighth best for participation among young voters.

Still, people 30 and older turned out in much greater numbers: nationally 54 percent cast a ballot in last year's big election. Here in Maryland, 62 percent, of them voted according to the University of Maryland-based CIRCLE, which stands for the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.

The kicker? Turnout among young voters nationwide was actually up 3 percent from the 2002 midterm election. That may not sound like much, but young voters had the largest percentage increase in participation of any age group for the second election in a row last fall, according to CIRCLE.

The question, then, at the starting line of the 2008 presidential campaigns is whether young adults will once again show up at the polls in larger numbers. And what would make them more likely to do so?

Why young adults don't vote

Amilcar Davy of Silver Spring, 27, decided just before last year's election that voting was important to him. Before that, he said he didn't vote because he just didn't care.

The University of Maryland graduate said he was absorbed in establishing a career in the years immediately after college.

"It was just not caring about what was going on," Davy said. But later, "you complain a lot and you realize that you're not voting."

It's not just Davy. The number of young people who don't vote has increased steadily with every generation since World War II, said Sheilah Mann, a Bethesda-based political scientist who retired from the American Political Science Association.

For a while, Mann said, there was a debate among scholars as to whether the problem was truly a generational one or more of a lifestyle one. Were adults of each successive generation less likely to vote at any point in their lives? Or would it just take them longer to become habitual voters, much like it was taking them longer to get married, have children and buy homes than older generations?

Research has now shown that lifestyle isn't the problem, Mann said.

Instead, it's that today's young adults are a product of a different society. They're increasingly likely to have parents who don't vote and they're less likely to have been encouraged to talk about their political opinions at the dinner table or to have learned about the rules for voter registration and voting, Mann said.

If that's rule, Lindsay Meadow of Washington is the exception. The 22-year-old said the main reason she voted in the 2004 presidential election is that her parents always told her it's important.

She plans to continue voting, but only for president, she said. Most of her friends do the same, she added, because they hear so much about the campaigns living in the nation's capital.

"I'm just not into politics," she said. "I just don't find it that interesting."

For a lot of older adults, voting is a habit. Young people like Meadow haven't developed that habit yet and, as a result, need a push.

At least that's the way Scott Keeter, the director of survey research for the Pew Research Center in Washington, sees it. He's co-authored several books on American politics and participation.

Young voters are "less likely to know about politics or have a sense of why politics is important and be able to confidently decide who they will vote for," Keeter said. "Young people tend to need encouragement and they need to be contacted and spoken to and mobilized in ways that older Americans don't."

In the last few decades, Keeter said, political candidates have been less willing to reach out to young adults in meaningful ways both because they know they're less likely to turn out at the polls and because they can't be assured of which political party each new crop of young people will support.

Presidential candidates are making some effort to reach technologically savvy young people this cycle. Many of them have pages on MySpace and Facebook with links to their official Web sites and other information. Several have circulated videos on YouTube.

At this point, it's too early to tell how such efforts will affect the election or whether they will at all, Karlo Marcelo, a research associate with CIRCLE, said.

What works

But before young people can have any impact on an election, they have to register to vote.

Billy Grayson is the director of Maryland Votes, a non-partisan statewide effort to register young adults to vote. He and other volunteers spent the last half of 2006 registering about 8,500 of Maryland's young people using cheap, simple tactics like knocking on doors and setting up tables outside dining halls on college campuses.

"We wanted to statistically find out where you could get the most bang for your buck in voter registration," said Grayson, who is also a graduate student studying business and public policy at the University of Maryland.

The Maryland Votes team found that the most effective strategy was making short presentations to college classes, passing out voter registration forms and collecting them before leaving.

"We found two good things about the class presentations: first, an authority figure (the class instructor) shows them that this is an important thing, and second, people are in the mind-set to pay attention," Grayson said. "One of the things that we learned is that if you make it easy for people to register to vote and make it important, they'll do it."

Marcelo, from CIRCLE, agreed. He said states that have tried a voting system in which residents can just show up to cast a ballot have boosted turnout.

The spike in participation among young voters in the last two elections also suggests young voters will turn out for competitive elections.

The 2008 presidential race is promising in that way. Candidates will face questions on the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, Social Security, the renewal of the federal No Child Left Behind law and immigration. Moreover, the election will be the first in decades without an incumbent president or vice president as a candidate.

"Real issues, real conflicts in the country motivate them," Mann said. "But they're also participating more possibly because there really has been an effort through service learning to get them to participate."

Those factors make Mann hopeful that the people who were eligible to vote for the first time in the 2004 presidential election and the 2006 midterm election– the same people whose participation increased more than any other age group in both of those elections– will buck the trend and vote more than previous generations.

"This generation has started out participating more and it's possible, maybe even likely, that it will continue to participate more than the previous generation, she said.

Editor's Note: This article first appearead in: The Montgomery County Sentinel

Monday, July 16, 2007

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