Candidates struggle to reach young voters Many are uninterested, uninvolved in politics, and do not go to polls

September 13, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

They are a hard audience to court and a poor investment for candidates: young adults who, with some exceptions, are uninterested and uninvolved in politics and do not vote despite efforts to get them to the polls.

In Anne Arundel County, where local candidates say they speak to young voters who attend political club gatherings and encourage them to vote, turnout among the 18- to 24-year-olds in the 1994 primary election was dismal.

About half of the 41,718 county residents in that age group registered to vote and 3,253 made it to the polls, according to figures kept by the Census Bureau and local election board.

Most Maryland jurisdictions do not keep such exact statistics, but political activists elsewhere say Anne Arundel is not unique.

John Solomon, vice chairman of the state Federation of College Republicans and a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, conceded that his age group is a tough sell, at least partly because so many of them are away from home.

Often, they are attending college out of state and are difficult to reach through mailings and other traditional registration drives, said Lewis Pope, chairman of the Howard County Republican Central Committee.

The secret, some say, is to interest young voters in local politics.

"To get more young people interested in politics, we need to get them to realize that state politics matter," said Helen Fister, chairwoman of the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee.

It is more cost-effective, both in votes and campaign donations, to court older voters who were taught as children that voting is a privilege, believe that their vote can make a difference and never miss an opportunity to go to the polls.

"It's a Catch-22 for candidates who are trying to make contact with as many people as possible who will vote," said Russell Mayer, a political science professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. "Any contacts made with people who don't vote are a waste of time and effort."

During the presidential election two years ago, Vince Giandurco, a New York public relations executive, came up with a $150,000 plan to recruit young voters at colleges and universities and pitched it to the Republican National Committee.

Called "Big Tent '96," it called for recruiters to set up tents at football tailgate parties to sign up voters. Giandurco figured he could register 72,000 new voters. But the proposal went nowhere.

"The official response from them was that it fell through the cracks," he said. "But I think there was more to it than that."

College students don't vote and typically are more liberal, he said. They don't become more conservative until they get older. And until they get older, they don't make enough money to

donate to Republican campaigns.

"I don't think [the Republican Party] wanted to spend the money on it," Giandurco said. "It's a short-sighted attitude because in the long run, you want votes."

Despite all of this, local political activists still struggle to drum up interest among high school students.

Local government and politics are taught in Maryland high schools, and voter registration drives are held in some schools.

Eighteen-year-olds can register to vote when they get their permanent driver's licenses in Maryland.

Young Democrats and Young Republican clubs are active on college campuses, and campaign staffs are filled with volunteers in their 20s who hope to make a career in politics. But not everyone is getting the message.

Josh Prim, 17, a Glen Burnie High School graduate, said he has never heard of either of those clubs and doubted that anyone at his school would be interested. He said he does not know who the Anne Arundel County executive is, but he said he does want to vote when he turns 18.

His friend, Paige Pumphrey, also 17, said she would be "lying" if she said she was interested in politics. "A lot of it does not apply to me," Paige said as she chatted with Josh in a Marley Station juice shop.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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