Young people find little reason to go to vote as this year's candidates fail to stir their passions ELECTION DEFECTION

November 05, 1990|By Jean Marbella

Madonna may wanna make voters out of them, but young people probably won't line up at voting booths tomorrow in the same fervid way they line up for her concert tickets.

The pop star, whose TV spots are part of a get-out-the-vote effort targeted at the young, may be in the same boat as the Gulf crisis and the faltering economy -- none is enough to send young voters flocking to the polls to exercise their newly aquired voters' cards.

"The local elections, I can't see how they'd affect us," said Akiba Covitz, a 22-year-old senior at St. John's College in Annapolis. "And I'll probably be leaving Maryland in six months anyway."

He is typical of college students when it comes to elections, political experts say. They are more interested in global issues than local ones, or they feel disenfranchised from "the system," or they've shifted their political activism toward grass-roots organizations that focus on a single issue, such as the environment or the abortion issue.

Whatever the reason, they don't value getting that first voter's card as much as prior generations have or put as much stock in the power of the one-man-one-vote system.

"What's one voter? Unless you have a large group, you're not powerful," said Demetris Scales, 20, a student at Morgan State University, who won't be voting tomorrow.

While people of all ages seem less than stirred by the current election, the young are perhaps even less interested than most.

"I think self-interest drives most people, and students don't see much connection to the political realm," said Herb Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College. "They're most interested in the environment now, but that rarely translates into a campaign. There are few candidates who advocate outright pollution."

The young have always been less likely to vote than older groups -- they're more transient and thus less connected to local politics, and they have less at stake at the ballot box. Usually, they turn out at the polls at a rate of about 10 percent less than older voters, said John T. Willis, a Democratic Party activist and expert on Maryland voting trends.

And one of this year's biggest issues -- taxes -- is not immediately relevant to them, he said.

"Part of it is that they're not yet vested in the system," Mr. Willis said. "They're not going to respond as vigorously to the tax cap issue as people who have lived in their houses for 20 years."

Young voters can be stirred into action, though, by the right issue, he said. In fact, 18-year-olds won the right to vote in 1972 as an offshoot of their anti-war, pro-civil rights activism in the late '60s, he said.

"But since '72, we haven't had either economic or social crises that existed in previous generations. It's not like they're faced with getting drafted, or their friends are coming home in bags," Mr. Willis said.

If war should break out in the Gulf and the draft reinstated, however, students might respond more forcefully. Anti-war protests and sentiments are already sprouting up on various college campuses.

The times, of course, make the voter.

"The time in which you grow up has a lot to do with your participation," Mr. Willis said. "The only president [that today's students] have recollection of is Reagan -- the me-too, anti-government era. When you have a leader in the '80s who was anti-government, that turns people off. Why should the average citizen feel participation is important?"

Some believe that it just takes the right candidate to light a voting fire under students, much in the same way John Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy once did. Or even, to some extent, Ronald Reagan.

"Reagan -- that's what brought me into the party," declared Tom Rafferty, a senior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and head of the campus College Republicans club.

A particular candidate also was the reason for Sean Brohawn, a senior at Towson State University, to become politically active in this year's election. After meeting and becoming friends with Gerry Brewster, Mr. Brohawn has been working for the candidate's bid for a House of Delegates seat.

But Mr. Brohawn is an oddity on campus, where most of his classmates are either apolitical or working for issues rather than candidates.

"I think that a lot of the specific issues are more interesting to kids," Mr. Brohawn said. "They feel they can make a more direct impact."

Stacy Mahoney, a 21-year-old Loyola College student, can bear witness to that. While last year, her College Republicans club was the largest on campus, "this year, the environmental club has pushed us out of first place."

Even many who have been politically active in past campaigns are sitting this one out.

Mr. Covitz, of St. John's, for example, was a campus coordinator for Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign two years ago, but this time around will just cast his own ballot.

Like other voters, he's been turned off by the mudslinging that has come to dominate many races. "The candidates, all they do is throw negative claims at each other," Mr. Covitz said.

James Morris, a freshman at Morgan State, has campaigned in the past for Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode. But although his mother mailed him an absentee ballot, he probably won't send it in. The political issue that currently has him fired up won't really be addressed this election, he said.

"After [Mr. Bush] vetoed the civil rights bill, I know who I won't be voting for in '92," said Mr. Morris, 20, who voted for Bush in 1988.

Some students echoed the same disenchantment that many people of all ages are feeling as the government seems to move farther and farther away from the concerns of daily life.

"I think there is a general sense that politics and government is getting more and more irrelevant," said Mr. Smith. "I think the young are typical in the growing disinterest with government."

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