Young voters could have big impact in November

Mark Hollis
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

The Millennial Generation. Echo Boomers. Generation Y. Whatever you call them, voters under 30 have gained prominence across America and will have a huge influence on the November presidential elections and beyond.

Like many politicians, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are taking great care to win them over. But it may take people like Amanda Morrison to ensure that young people actually have a voice in the 2008 races.

Morrison is a team leader for and will oversee a group of 10 volunteers with a goal of registering 300 Palm Beach County residents and others at tonight's Pearl Jam concert west of West Palm Beach. The band, which is partially funding the nonpartisan voter-registration campaign, begins its nationwide summer tour at the Cruzan Amphitheatre.

In 2004 and 2006, voter mobilization teams, such as Rock The Vote, Choose or Lose and Vote or Die, went after young people with unprecedented intensity. This year, HeadCount's volunteers are following major music artists - the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Foo Fighters and Wilco - primarily at outdoor concerts. They aim to register at least 100,000 voters, with the expectation that most of them will be first-time voters under 30.

Morrison, 32, will spend her summer traveling to Pearl Jam concerts. She considers the voter-registration effort one of the most important things she could do.

"We live in a democratic society, but most of us are not practicing our democracy," the San Francisco native said after arriving Tuesday at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. "When these young people are at the concert, they're really inspired, excited. And they really become motivated and want to make a difference. I want to help them make a difference."

This year, as many 50 million Millennials (those ages 18 to 31) are eligible to vote. And so far this year, young voters have turned out in higher numbers than prior elections in every primary state except New York, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, known as CIRCLE. The scenario, some say, bodes well for a large number of voters in the November general elections - and beyond.

"This will be a high turnout year as well," said Peter Levine, a University of Maryland researcher who is the director of CIRCLE.

Outdoor music festivals like the one tonight are in a period of popularity. Likewise, musicians' influential voices with the youth make concerts a good venue for drawing in people who might otherwise be disinterested in politics, government and voting, according to experts in voter registration.

The challenge, though, is getting across a convincing message that voting matters to young people, especially those who are distrustful of government.

"We've got to make the civic process part of the basic social fabric of their lives," said Andy Bernstein, executive director of HeadCount. "The real work is getting them registered. We've got to make it easy for them to register and to inspire them."

This works best, Bernstein said, by tying young people's hunger for power with the knowledge that voting is strength. "They believe they have clout, and that they can change the world, and the first step toward that is voting," said Bernstein, who is 36.

Another key is what HeadCount plans to do closer to the election. It will send e-mails and "get out the vote" reminder phone calls to all those the group registers.

In 2004, over 4 million new young voters turned out at the polls on Election Day. The rise in youth voter registration coincided with a dramatic rise in registration and turnout of all age groups. But in 2006, young voters turned out in higher numbers than typical for a non-presidential election when older voters didn't increase their registration and turnout significantly.

Some analysts say that is evidence young voters' interest in the political process may be more than just a fad.

Levine and others say the political campaigns have tapped into the younger generation through Internet sites like YouTube, Facebook and MySpace. As a result, the candidates' campaign efforts are more effective than those of the nonpartisan voter mobilization groups like HeadCount.

Meanwhile, Obama, and his message of change, has been generating much of this year's publicity for attracting youth voters. But he's by no means the only candidate winning over the younger set. After losing the majority of the under-30 vote in Iowa, for example, Sen. Hillary Clinton stepped up her youth outreach, particularly on college campuses.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee was credited with drawing significant numbers of young Republicans, particularly to the Iowa caucuses. Republican Ron Paul also has done very well registering new voters, pollsters say, while McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, captured interest among voters under 30 in many states.

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