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Young Voters Speak Out on Election-year Issues, Politicians

October 25, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: We traveled around the United States this summer, listening and talking to young people about everything from pop culture to politics. What we found was that a lot of them were skeptical about politics and voting.

In California, onboard our R.V. with a computer and a Web cam, we heard from Aaron McDaniel.

AARON MCDANIEL: I’m pretty much apathetic towards politics. I mean, I’m sure that if I paid attention to a lot of it, I might have an opinion, but I don’t know. I just don’t see the point in, like, watching a TV and this old guy saying, you know, “This is what should be done, this is what should be done.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Roxanne Nance in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

ROXANNE NANCE: I just want to know how the next time is going to be different? You know, why should I go out and vote them back in office now that I can vote if they screwed everything up now? You know, why should I vote for you if I don’t think that it’s going to be different next time?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jackson Sarneski-Hayes.

JACKSON SARNESKI-HAYES: I’m sad to say that a lot of people I know, if you ask them what their political views are, they’ll say they just don’t care.

A different interest in voting

Cole Carpenter
I believe voting is very important, very important. Voted ever since I was able to, whether it be county or anything like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back during the activist '60s, young people argued if they could be drafted at 18 to fight in Vietnam, they should be able to vote. So the voting age was lowered from 21 in 1971. But ever since, there's been an almost steady decline in turnout among young people. Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center says the last few decades have been quieter.

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Center for the People and the Press: Those were pretty easy years. There weren't a lot of complaints. The issues almost seemed very small and minuscule compared to what we face today, and people weren't angry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Turnout dropped even more among young people because of what young voter activist Justin Rockefeller calls a "vicious cycle."

JUSTIN ROCKEFELLER, Voter Activist: Young people don't have a lot of money. Politicians, therefore, don't court their support as much because they don't have money to give. Young people then feel ignored by politicians, and they tend not to vote. When politicians see that young people aren't voting, they further ignore them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, we found many young people this year for whom voting does matter, like Aisha Sewell in Columbus, Ohio.

AISHA SEWELL: Voting is very important. I have not missed, you know, the chance to vote since I've turned 18. And I vote for many reasons. I vote because I am an African-American woman, and I've been -- you know, my ancestors didn't always have that right. However, as far as it making a difference, sometimes I am skeptical on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in Leoti, Kansas, Cole Carpenter.

COLE CARPENTER: I believe voting is very important, very important. Voted ever since I was able to, whether it be county or anything like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yet, when we asked young people whom they look up to in public life, few mention politicians.

Who in public life do you look up to?

YOUNG WOMAN: Oprah.

YOUNG MAN: Maybe I would say Bill Gates.

YOUNG MAN: I was going to say Jon Stewart, because I feel like right now that's kind of as close to a voice that I have.

YOUNG MAN: I look up to my mother a lot.

Anticipation of a strong turnout

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
But we also know that changes in voter registration may have aided and abetted this increase in participation among this young group. It's easier to register now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why are so many young people turned off to politicians? Several reasons, says Andy Kohut of Pew.

ANDREW KOHUT: Certainly, over time, wrongdoing in high places can demoralize people and make them think that their vote really doesn't count because they're a bunch of scoundrels. I don't think politicians these days or for some time have been charismatic figures. I'm not surprised that young people today don't look at politicians and say, "Wow!" They're not "wow" figures in our society.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it's not just scandals and a lack of charisma. According to Pew polls, this generation of young people is much more tolerant of people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and of different sexual orientation than are older generations, so many are turned off when they see politicians moving to clamp down on those who are different or who disagree on social issues.

Dan Thomsen of Los Angeles.

DAN THOMSEN: You guys were talking about gay marriage, and I don't understand why that is a public policy issue at all. And so the fact that so much energy is spent debating that and putting that on so many ballots, I think that's kind of frustrating at a national level. And, like, the fact that it's going to be used as kind of a wedge issue is disappointing and kind of disengages me from the process, I guess.

JUDY WOODRUFF: According to polls, young people today identify as more liberal than their elders. Indeed, they were John Kerry's strongest supporters in 2004, when voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds rose 11 percent, more than any other age group. Most attribute the jump to ferment over the Iraq war and heightened turnout efforts.

ANDREW KOHUT: In part, it was fueled by greater participation among younger women -- they led the way -- and also among African-Americans, younger African-Americans, two groups that voted heavily Democratic. But we also know that changes in voter registration may have aided and abetted this increase in participation among this young group. It's easier to register now. You can vote by mail. You can register at the time you get your driver's license.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Turnout for midterm elections is always lower than presidential races, but there are almost 29 million eligible Generation Nexters, and if they did turn out in record numbers and continue the trend from 2004, they could have a significant impact. Andy Kohut sees that possibility.

ANDREW KOHUT: In 2002, only 27 percent of people 18 to 25 said they had given a lot of thought to the congressional elections. Today, that percentage is 48 percent, very much higher. And that suggests that we may again see higher turnout among this generation in this congressional election as we did in the last presidential election.

Motivation through innovation

Justin Rockefeller and Adrian Talbott
Generation Engage

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what will motivate these young people to vote? The same issues that motivate older voters, says Kohut: Iraq, the economy, and, for some, a generation unique issue, the cost of higher education. Villanova University junior Jonathan Reimer spent his summer working in construction to help pay for school.

JONATHAN REIMER: It's really not fair for students to have to pay so much for college. It doesn't cost that much. You know, I wonder constantly who's getting my money. I don't know what the solution is, but I hate to say regulation is a very good answer or even price caps or something like that, but I don't know, somehow relate the cost of educating the student to the price.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In San Diego, Gen-Y Radio host John Fiske says his generation isn't guided purely by party affiliation.

JOHN FISKE, Radio Host: If you ask them, "Are you conservative or are you liberal?" there's going to be an asterisk next to it. They're going to have a caveat. They're going to say, "Well, I don't like President Bush, but"...

RADIO HOST: "If you have to classify me into something."

JOHN FISKE: ... "but I really don't think people should be spending my tax dollars on this, that or the other."

JUDY WOODRUFF: This year, there is so much at stake that young people are being bombarded from all sides with messages to vote.

WWE WRESTLER: Voting is your right. Don't give it up. Act now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Based at George Washington University, the non-partisan group Young Voters Strategies and its partners have already registered 400,000, using a combination of new approaches, like allowing people to register to vote by sending a text message from a cell phone and old techniques, like knocking on doors.

Candidates can also get their messages out on MySpace and Facebook, popular social networking sites. New blogs aimed at younger voters are popping up weekly, as are sites that permit exchanges of information and opinion, some taking sides, others not.

One of the hottest non-partisan sites, YouTube, has already been used to hurt the re-election bid of Virginia Republican Senator George Allen. Users posted video of his controversial remark to a dark-skinned man.

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R), Virginia: This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Then, there are new bipartisan organizations, like Generation Engage, founded by three young college graduates, making it their mission to get young people who aren't in college involved in the political process. Students are already being targeted, says co-founder Adrian Talbott.

ADRIAN TALBOTT, Generation Engage: If you are a candidate, a politician, a political party, or an NGO, and you want to reach young people, you go where the infrastructure is, and those are college campuses, to reach young people. Again, if you want to reach this forgotten half of young America, that opportunity is not available to you.

Bridging the generational divide

Anya Kamenetz
Author, "Generation Debt"
And instead, they had this guy coming up talking about issues that didn't seem to relate to them at all, Medicare, taxes. You know, maybe they relate, maybe they don't relate, but, you know, the connection wasn't being made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But at the end of the day, all of these efforts might not pay off, if the candidates themselves don't know how to talk to young people. Writer and former Village Voice columnist Anya Kamenetz told us about attending a John Kerry rally at City College in New York two years ago.

ANYA KAMENETZ, Author, "Generation Debt": It was this incredible crowd, and diverse, hard-working, working-class kids from the city that cared about the country and wanted someone who was going to speak to their concerns. And instead, they had this guy coming up talking about issues that didn't seem to relate to them at all, Medicare, taxes. You know, maybe they relate, maybe they don't relate, but, you know, the connection wasn't being made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some young people, like Jessica Burbank, say they want to be involved. They're just waiting to be called on.

JESSICA BURBANK: If I could speak to anyone, it would probably be someone in the Senate, or someone like the president, or something like that, and ask him, why doesn't he reach out to people our age in Generation Next?

I don't understand why he can't get more information from what we believe. We're not that young; we do know what's going on. And I just wish that the older people that are running the country would kind of let some of the younger people or younger generations in a little bit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was a message we heard from more than one young voter: They will be more willing to turn out if they think someone is listening to their concerns.