Turn youths into voters, Howard ballot chief urges

October 03, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson

Lobbying by middle school students who lost a friend in a fatal accident generated Howard County's landmark bicycle-helmet law "and now they're hooked on politics forever because they've seen it work," said Frank Lupashunski, president of the county elections board.

But such enthusiasm for the political process, especially among young people, is rare, and "apathy is getting worse," said Mr. Lupashunski, who taught political science for 32 years at Howard High School.

The county prides itself on high voter turnouts, and so the 25 percent turnout for this month's primary election was a shock, said Mr. Lupashunski, who is trying to bridge what he sees as a growing gulf between the electorate and the elected.

Mr. Lupashunski has asked Jim Mundy, a political science teacher at Glenelg High School, to try a new program developed by Ohio officials that emphasizes "practical" participation in both real and hypothetical politics, such as being campaign volunteers or election judges.

The 137-page program, called "Political Participation," says negative campaigns and campaigns conducted through "feely-good" television spots have reduced the electorate to spectators instead of participants.

is no wonder that polls show an increase in negative attitudes toward politics that parallels the decrease in turnout at the polls," it says.

About half of eligible voters 18 to 24 are registered, and only a third of those vote, Mr. Lupashunski said, "but it is not a lost cause."

He learned about the Ohio program in June at a meeting of Maryland election officials.

"As a political science teacher I found this impressive -- a relevant and practical approach to involving young people in the political process," Mr. Lupashunski said.

Mr. Mundy agreed to use it as an informal pilot program. If it succeeds, Mr. Lupashunski said, he would like to see it applied across Maryland.

Mr. Mundy said he would cull the most useful sections from the material and present it this month to his two 10th-grade classes in history and civics, which are preparing for the state-required "citizenship" test in January.

"Kids aren't too enthusiastic about government; it's a tough sell," he said. "But if I can make it attractive, it will work."

The Ohio program is divided into four parts: causes and effects of low voter turnout; voter registration and voting procedures; activity options for participation in real and hypothetical political activities; and politics in a presidential year.

Among its best features, Mr. Mundy said, is a 69-question survey developed by the Ohio League of Women Voters aimed at determining the extent of high school seniors' political knowledge, their most urgent concerns and how, if at all, they think elected officials affect those concerns.

The course is accompanied by a 20-minute video called "First Tuesday," made in San Diego, which viewers have said contains powerful message of the ultimate effect of non-participation: tyranny.

Mr. Mundy, who has taught for 18 years in Howard county schools, suggested that "apathy" was the wrong word for the malaise afflicting U.S. voters.

"It's not apathy but disillusionment," he said, "frustration with government officials, not only socially but economically. This is reflected in the students' attitude toward the process."

But if no one tries to "compromise with their disillusionment," it will not be reversed, Mr. Mundy said.

"You have got to level with the kids," he said. "You have got to let them know that things are not always right but that they can't just throw up their hands and walk away."

Mr. Brown said schools and organizations nationwide had requested copies of the course. He did not know how many were using it.

Ohio Secretary of State Sherrod Brown, who developed the program with the state education department and the League of Women Voters, said the anti-politics trend was reversible "if you catch 'em young" and persuade students that voting has civic and moral value.

Ohio law requires a volunteer voting registrar in every high school, so there is registration of virtually all students who will be eligible to vote in any upcoming election.

"There is no more captive audience," Mr. Brown said.

But the question in Ohio, Howard County and everywhere else is whether young people will become habitual voters.

Secretary of state is an elective office in Ohio. Mr. Brown, who is running for his third term, blames voter "alienation" in large part on politicians and on the news media that report about them.

"Politicians talk to each other, and reporters write for each other, and it's all usually silly things," Mr. Brown said.

"If I call a press conference to announce something new, I can get three or four reporters. If I call one and attack my opponent, I get three times that many."

An Associated Press report in January of a survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates said only 12 percent of 1,100 people between the ages of 15 and 24 considered voting a basic tenet of good citizenship. Sixty percent said they knew "just some" or "very little about how government works."

Some of the early cynicism developing among youths emerged in the survey when a young woman who was asked how to encourage young people to vote replied: "Pay them."

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