Generation Now

More young voters finding their way to the polls

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Memo to young people: Your vote counts.

Recent campaigns and political maneuvers clearly have spelled out that message, said David Rosenfeld, director of the New Voters Project, a non-partisan youth voting advocacy group based in Portland, Ore.

He offers examples of political candidates seeking the coveted 18- to 24-year-old demographic.

For starters, President Bush directed his administration to delve into the dreaded "third rail of politics" realm of attempting to fix Social Security.

On the opposite side of the aisle, Democrats promoted Howard Dean, whose fiery, anti-war platform appealed to young voters in the 2004 primary, as party chairman.

"It's a smart thing for them to do," said Rosenfeld about courting the historically dormant youth vote. "They could swing an election one way or another. It behooves candidates to target young people. If you do, they might just vote for you, and you might just win."

Neither the Colorado Secretary of State's Office nor the Moffat County Clerk and Recorder's Office can track youth voter turnout, so state and local statistics are hard to come by. But officials from both offices said they thought the number was relatively low, especially when compared with the turnout of older, more civically involved voters.

"If I was guessing, I would say it's fairly low," said Lila Herod, deputy county clerk and recorder.

"We don't track turnout based on age and ethnicity," said Dana Williams, public information officer with the secretary of state's office. "But, we're putting in a lot of effort to try and get the youth involved in the electoral process."

The low turnout officials think exists among young people statewide and in Moffat County conforms with national statistics for the 18- to 24-year-old demographic.

The 2000 presidential election, for instance, brought 36 percent of 18- to 24-year-old voters to the polls.

Significant gains were made four years later, when many younger voters began tuning into candidates and issues. Nearly half of the age group -- 47 percent, an 11 percent increase from 2000 -- cast ballots.

Partially responsible for the upswing is that more advocacy groups such as the New Voters Project, which made Colorado a priority in 2004 by partnering with the secretary of state's office to encourage youth turnout, are raising awareness about young voter apathy. Another reason for the increase is that politicians are focusing more on the demographic.

If more young voters are listening, Rosenfeld said, it's because politicos and their entourages are talking. And, more and more, they're talking about issues young people care about, such as war, education, Social Security and the economy.

"Part of the problem that a lot of the (political) operatives have is that young people don't vote, so they don't pay a lot of attention to them," Rosenfeld said. "But they're getting smarter. They're learning that if they talk to young people, they will vote for them."

The 18- to 24-year-old demographic is highly sought after, and statistics from a recent study by MTV and Harvard University reveal why. A decade from now, Generation Y, those 30 years old and younger, will make up 40 percent of the U.S. population. That translates into 66 million people, a size approaching the baby boomers' 77 million in the 2000 election.

Rosenfeld said most young voters register as Independents and still are deciding which political parties best represents them.

At 60 million-plus strong, the demographic represents a large block of swing voters that, if unified behind a single candidate or cause, could tip the balance of power in any election, Rosenfeld said.

Williams and Herod said programs are in place at the state and local levels to get more young people to the polls. One entails placing high school students who are old enough to vote as aides to election judges.

The positive impact from that program may not be felt in an election such as Tuesday's primary, which historically draws a lower turnout than general elections. But Williams and Herod said they see it as having a gradual effect over time.

"It just helps them to see how easy it is to get involved," Williams said.

"I've seen a real positive impact from that," Herod said. "They just seem to very conscientious voters after that."

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