Youth movement

February 29, 2004|By Zachary Peterson and Galen Lande

IT'S NOT EASY convincing 18-year-olds that their vote matters. They feel ignored by politicians. And it's just as hard to get politicians to spend scarce time and money on an electorate that refuses to cast a ballot.

In the 2000 presidential election, only 32 percent of eligible 18-to-25-year-old voters cast ballots, compared with 58 percent of voters over 25.

An increase of only 20 percent among the 25 million 18-to-25-year-old voters would be enough to dramatically change the outcome of an election.

Analysts predict that the 2004 election will be won by fewer than 4 percentage points.

But what are the strategies to motivate America's youths to vote?

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean courted tens of thousands of young supporters with innovative campaign strategies, going where no candidate had dared to venture before -- online.

His Web site brought the candidate and young voters together to discuss issues online and organize rallies, and generally sought to appeal to the dissatisfied youth electorate. But did Dr. Dean go far enough?

The most impressive aspect of the Dean Web campaign was its ability to generate donations. But, in the end, this did not help Dr. Dean.

Youth04 (www.you-th04.org), a national, nonpartisan effort based at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, with a chapter at the Johns Hopkins University, has focused on engaging the average young person rather than the passionate few.

With nationwide chapters based at universities, Youth04 synergizes the best of grass-roots political campaigns with the easily accessible, interactive and always-on features of the Internet; a very appealing aspect to youths who grew up in the digital age.

Other organizations such as Youth in Action and Mobilizing America's Youth have partnered with Youth04 to similarly energize and empower young voters.

Youth04 offers youths a place to discuss local, state and federal issues that matter to them in an environment that's fun and familiar. They are encouraged to sign petitions, post comments on discussion boards, take online polls, share political ideas or jokes or just read what others have to say. The on-demand and borderless nature of the Internet will increasingly play a vital role in the effectiveness of a campaign.

Instead of spreading a static message such as a candidate's platform, Youth04 encourages young voters to form their own opinions on issues, share those opinions in a public forum and then encourage others to participate.

Traditional e-mail canvassing has become an ineffective means of spreading a message because of the sheer volume of spam. Youth04 and other groups will evolve to using instant messaging (IM) technology, in which potential voters will be able to share ideas and link to political content in an Internet chat room. IMing is personal and effective and can move information at speeds much greater than e-mail.

E-campaigning may be a key component of politics, but physically mobilizing youths still is necessary to increase turnout.

To do that in Baltimore, the Youth04 Hopkins chapter is using the One World CafM-i on University Parkway as a hot spot for political discussion and a gathering place for potential voters.

But more is needed to bridge the gap between college students who vote 44 percent of the time and non-college youths who vote 21 percent of time. One way: community outreach. The Hopkins Youth04 chapter met for 90 minutes Thursday with members of the Youth Opportunity Center in East Baltimore to politically empower inner-city youths and build a relationship between historically active youth voters and nonvoters.

Youth04 and groups like it will run pilot programs in Tuesday's primary election, positioning them for the November election. The programs give students a chance to generate the energy that can change the face of politics dramatically. By motivating young voters and candidates to pay attention to each other, the result is an enthusiastic, voting youth.

Zachary Peterson, a computer science graduate student, and Galen Lande, a freshman, are co-leaders of the Johns Hopkins University Youth04 chapter.

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