Voter apathy at an all-time high

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What if this country held an election and nobody came?

Americans have been tuning out the campaign and staying home on election day in ever larger numbers, according to the Vanishing Voter Project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. In 1996, voter turnout dropped to 49 percent, one of the lowest ever recorded. Other indicators, such as the size of viewing audiences for major televised campaign events, were also at or near their lowest recorded levels in the last presidential election. According to a recent CNN report, television viewers of this year's convention coverage were at an all-time low on all networks, for both conventions.

According to Margaret Conway in her book, "Political Participation in the U.S.," such low turnout rates represent an apathetic, politically disinterested populace. The fact that turnout rates have been steadily declining for the past 30 years leads some to wonder how can our democracy remain healthy?

We tend to look to the youth of our country for an infusion of enthusiasm. New blood. Untainted attitudes. Fresh agendas. The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971, but many analysts point out voter apathy in the 18-25 age group has spread throughout the nation, right in sync with their Boomer parents.

"Young people probably don't vote because their minds are on other things, and they forget about the real world - once they start a family, then they probably start to vote," Junior Herndon, 22, said. A pitcher for the San Diego Padres AAA farm team who returns to his hometown of Craig during the off-season, Herndon is usually playing ball out of town during elections and didn't know about absentee ballots. "Maybe I should pay more attention," he said.

"The young people are the future of America and we want them to have a voice in shaping the future of this country," said Donetta Davidson, Colorado Secretary of State. Her concerns have initiated a Campus Voter Outreach Campaign, with a statewide kick-off next week, Sept. 18-22.

"It's important to vote if you know what's going on and know about the people who are running," Herndon said. "Since I don't vote, I don't have a right to bellyache about the laws that get passed."

On a scale of one to 10 representing important life activities, Zachery Godfrey puts voting at a high of eight. Godfrey, 18, a senior at Moffat County High School, hasn't registered yet. "But I plan to - I want to vote this year. I want to vote my opinion. I want to have a say in making the rules that I have to follow," he said.

Candice Mathers, 22, bartends in Craig and plans to vote this year. "I think it's very important to vote because it's our president, and what he believes in affects my life," she said. "I want to pick the one who is going to do what I agree with."

According to Lila Herod, Moffat County Elections Supervisor, approximately 106 voters in the 18 to 25 year old range turned out to vote in the August 8 Primary this year. "Statewide, we had a higher number of voters compared to other counties," she said. In the 1998 General Election 4,436 voters turned out, and 259 (nearly six percent) were between the ages of 18 and 25.

Herod said there are (as of Sept. 8) 9,095 registered voters in Moffat County. This represents approximately 61 percent of the county population. But just because people are registered doesn't mean they're going to vote.

Kaley Omailia, 22, a bookkeeper for several Craig businesses, is registered to vote but doesn't go to the polls because of religious beliefs. "I figure things will be what they will be, and it doesn't matter if I vote," she said.

Valerie Boulger, 21, is a part-time college student and full-time banquet supervisor for a Craig hotel. She was registered to vote but, after she got married, received a letter telling her she was no longer registered because her name had changed. She doesn't plan to vote this year. "I'm too busy, I'm in and out a lot and really don't know that much about the elections. A lot of people don't get the information so don't know what's going on. I don't watch TV or really read the newspaper because it's the same old stuff - all that violence," she said.

Voters who do cast their votes on Nov. 7 will notice some new faces at the precincts. Thanks to HB 1391, passed in the last legislative session, high school students ages 16-18 will act as Student Election Judges.

"This is such a neat program to encourage the young people to vote," Herod said.

The Colorado Secretary of State's office plans to hold a kick-off campaign for this program on the State Capital steps, Monday, Sept. 18. The students are required to complete an application, which includes parental permission. The school refers students to the Election Official. They will be required to attend a training class and meet the same statutory requirements as the adults. Students will be assigned to assist in precincts with experienced adult Election Judges.

"I have no clue why a lot of people in my age group don't vote," Godfrey said. He plans to research the candidates and ballot issues before he votes. "Just vote!" he advises his peers.

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