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Knoxville Sun-Sentinel

Issues important to youths often not important to politicians
By Molly Freedenberg
November 1, 2002

Rock the Vote. Rock and Register. Get out and Vote.

These messages, and others like them, are cropping up sporadically in TV programs, local newspaper ads and political party-sponsored events geared to the 18- to 24-year-old set.

The reason? Young people aren't voting. In droves.

Voter turnout for people between 18 and 24 is at a record low, based on election data.

According to data from the 1996 national elections, only 32.4 percent of youths voted, compared to 67 percent of senior citizens.

The numbers indicate a problem, but the solution might be more complex than simply overcoming youth apathy, said Rashad Robinson, field director for the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington.

"That youths are apathetic is a sexy angle to go after," said Robinson, "but it's a simplistic argument."

Megan Jennings, 23, campus organizer of the California Student Public Interest Research Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, agreed. It's not that young people don't care about anything, she said, but that they're disengaged from the political process.

Candidates don't focus on youths, so youths don't focus on them, and the disinterest becomes mutual and self-perpetuating.

Jennings remembers watching the 2000 presidential debates on television.

"All they talked about was Social Security, over and over. ... I have grandparents, and I care about Social Security, but there are other things we care about," she said.

Those candidates who do discuss issues important to youths, such as college financing, the job market and affordable housing, don't always talk to the young people themselves.

And don't look to television ads to fill in that gap, because they don't target youths either.

"The ads weren't during 'Friends' or 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' when young people were watching TV," Robinson said.

Those young people who are involved in politics say their parents are politically aware or active, had newspapers around the house and discussed current events.

Without those influences growing up, said Robinson, youths don't become involved in politics until they have a personal investment in an issue. And that may not happen until they're out of the "youth" bracket.

Tom Hogen-Esch, a professor of political science at California State University, Northridge, said youths often see candidates as being all alike because as candidates have become increasingly more moderate since the '70s, youths are typically idealistic and more liberal.

The result is that they don't show up at the polls and aren't represented in political decisions, he said.

Hogen-Esch said the problem of low voter turnout must be addressed because it isn't restricted to young people.

Robinson suggested changing the system by making a statement of its importance, such as declaring Election Day a national holiday.

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