Beating the drum for voter registration Innovative campaign hopes to show young people in U.S. the importance of voting.

July 10, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- "Get up, stand up," Bob Marley sings on a video that is part of an innovative campaign to get young people to register to vote.

People for the American Way began this year distributing the short video to high schools. It features background music by popular singers and shows young people talking about the importance of voting and individual initiative.

Along with the video, the liberal non-profit group is giving teachers a packet of lesson plans intended to reinforce the voting message.

"My vision is every person ought to leave high school in this country with a diploma in one hand and a voter registration card TC in another," says Sanford Horwitt of People for the American Way.

"First Vote," as the group calls its program, is a direct attack on what seems like an intractable problem -- voter apathy. Even if it succeeds in registering new voters, it's "not the cure," Horwitt says, "because there are a lot of pieces to the problem."

Political scientists cannot agree on the causes of voter apathy, only that it is serious and shows no signs of improving. Voter turnout and registration have declined sharply in the past 30 years. In 1984, when an immensely popular President Reagan stood for re-election, just 53.1 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

One promising sign is that when people are registered to vote, they usually go to the polls. People for the American Way cites figures showing that more than 80 percent of those registered went to the polls from 1972 to 1984.

This phenomenon is what drives "First Vote" and other registration drives. Reformers want to make it easier to register and to extend the deadline for registration up to Election Day itself.

But many analysts believe more difficult issues underlie the non-voting problem.

"Probably the single biggest factor people have pointed to is the weakening of party identification," says Eric M. Uslaner, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.

"If people don't really feel that strongly about politics, then they're not going to vote. And one of the ways that people feel strongly about politics is feeling strongly about a party. Over the last three decades, the strength of party identification has weakened dramatically."

Other factors are the public's declining trust in government and the declining trust people have in one another, Uslaner says. Polls since 1960 have shown fewer positive responses to the question, "Do you think most people can be trusted?"

Last month, the Kettering Foundation released a study, based on interviews with voters in 10 cities, that turned the apathy debate on its head. Americans are not apathetic, it said, but "are abstaining from a system they feel has shoved them out."

Citizens see themselves as shut out of a system that has been taken over by special interests, lobbyists and political action committees, through which special interests contribute money to candidates.

"Many citizens now find themselves at a loss about just how to participate in politics. They even question the usefulness of voting," the study concluded.

Perhaps the most troubling conclusion of the study is that none of the current approaches to political reform will work. "Initiatives like campaign-finance reform, new ethics codes, drives for easier vote registration or limiting the terms of legislative members will provide only marginal benefit in reconnecting citizens and politics," the study said.

The study called for a "national discussion" on how to "improve the practice of politics in America," but offered no specific reform measures.

Horwitt believes a major attitudinal change has occurred. In the past, he said, "the self-image of a good citizen included voting regularly. I think now there's reason to believe the trend is running in the opposite direction."

Uslaner is not optimistic. "People don't want to vote," he says. "People don't think their politicians are saying anything. Now if someone can find a way to make politics more interesting to the average person, that might work."

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