Young Voters Must Put Politicians on the Spot

October 19, 2004 | Chicago Sun-Times |

NEW YORK -- Trying to stir up images of the 1960s freedom rides, MTV's bipartisan Rock the Vote Bus Tour to galvanize young voters rolled into Chicago last weekend, complete with politicians, community leaders and, of course, celebrities and corporate sponsors.

Young people enjoy unprecedented attention this keenly contested election. There are a number of high-profile 'get out the vote' efforts like the Rock the Vote campaign, mogul Russell Simmons' outreach to the hip-hop generation, and Karl Rove protege Eric Hoplin's national mobilization of 120,000 youth and 60 field staffers.

Yet George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry barely address these voters directly, leaving that job to surrogates and mobilization efforts. In any case, addressing these voters is not enough. Candidates also need to talk to their issues.

Only 37 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2000 presidential election, compared with 64 percent of voters 25 and older. Given the low margin of victory in that election, and some hotly contested ground this year, the candidates may want to turn an eye toward those swing states with the lowest youth turnout in 2000: Ohio, 42 percent; Florida, 41; New Hampshire, 37; Pennsylvania, 36; Arizona, 28, and New Mexico, 28.

Young people arguably shun voting because they are indifferent to electoral outcomes. Or they are too busy with the daily grind of survival. Or they feel alienated from their government. Whatever the particular causes, the situation demands solutions. As college tuition and loan costs soar and young soldiers in Iraq die almost daily, much is at stake.

Young adults are earning less today than 20 or 30 years ago. In 1974, the typical 25- to 34-year-old male with a high school degree earned just over $37,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Today, he earns $26,000. The inflation-adjusted earnings for the average young college graduate have also stagnated (at about $42,000), while the cost of living rises unabated.

These issues have not found their due place on the election agenda. A careful review of the debates shows that young people's issues were not comprehensively or directly addressed.

Time is short. Young people, nonprofits and the media must force the candidates' hands. Media outlets (print, radio, television, digital) established for young audiences must resist the greedy temptation to curb political coverage when it seems boring and unprofitable. Such media outlets must deliver full, substantive coverage of the campaign's remaining days. Young people, the nonprofit sector and the media must press Bush and Kerry on the high cost of college tuition, the lack of affordable starter homes, high-interest credit card debt, and the possibility of a draft -- issues young Americans actually care about.

Richard M. Benjamin is a senior fellow at Demos, a national research and advocacy organization.

 

Young people arguably shun voting because they are indifferent to electoral outcomes. Or they are too busy with the daily grind of survival. Or they feel alienated from their government. Whatever the particular causes, the situation demands solutions. As college tuition and loan costs soar and young soldiers in Iraq die almost daily, much is at stake.