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A Force for Change

Operating with a combined war chest of more than $40 million, nonpartisan groups as disparate as World Wrestling Entertainment’s Smackdown Your Vote, Christian-based Redeem the Vote and P. Diddy’s Citizen Change are trying to motivate young people to register and vote. Photo: Michael Richmond

If activist groups have their way, college campuses will become political hotbeds in the months preceding the 2004 presidential election. But unlike the 1960s, when tiny, ad hoc groups were instrumental in mobilizing voters, 2004 is characterized by flashy mega-organizations with a national reach. Operating with a combined war chest of more than $40 million, nonpartisan groups as disparate as World Wrestling Entertainment’s Smackdown Your Vote, Christian-based Redeem the Vote and P. Diddy’s Citizen Change are trying to motivate young people to register and vote.

Although a key audience will be the nation’s 9.5 million college and university students under the age of 25, luring young people to the polls this November won’t be easy. With the exception of a onetime surge in 1992, voting by 18–24-year-olds has declined in every presidential election since 1972. It plummeted to 36 percent in 2000, according to the New Voters Project, a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to registering more than 260,000 18–24-year-olds and contacting 500,000–750,000 in the final weeks before the 2004 presidential election.

Although they didn’t cause the decline in voting and, in fact, simply appear to be continuing a tradition started by their grandparents, Millennials—the cohort of young people born between 1977 and 1987—are already dealing with the political ramifications of their inaction: With the exception of election years, they’re often ignored.

“There’s a horrible cycle of neglect going on,” says Zach Mack, Denver campus organizer for the New Voters Project. “Young people don’t vote because their needs aren’t being catered to, and politicians don’t cater to young people because they don’t vote.”

Instead, politicians focus their attention on senior citizens, whose turnout consistently exceeds 60 percent. During the 2000 primaries, for instance, candidates placed 58 percent of their ads in media favored by the over-50 set.

“And that makes sense,” Mack says. “Who would you pay attention to?”

“We the People…” Redefined

Before you dismiss Millennials as apathetic or irresponsible, it’s important to understand that they haven’t turned their back on society; they’ve simply changed the paradigm for making things better. Rather than turning out en masse at the polls, they focus on volunteer projects that directly impact their communities.

Although many juggled school, jobs and a host of other activities, 38 percent of Millennials participated in at least one community-assistance effort in 2000–01, according to a study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

This finding doesn’t surprise Ryan Greenawalt, BSBA ’02, a bond trader for Legg Mason who also supports the Log Cabin Republicans’ corporate development, chapter development and college outreach efforts. “Young people are more likely to volunteer,” Greenawalt says. “Fifty percent of my friends are involved in some sort of activity that affects the social community.”

The hands-on nature of volunteer work appeals to young people who want to make a difference and, as Terence Klugman, DU High School ’04, says, “People are cynical about politics because they feel they can’t make a change. Volunteering has more impact personally than casting a vote.”

But does that mean you can equate a few hours at a senior center or inner city school with voting?

Many, including 25-year-old Greenawalt, think not. Nevertheless, the self-described young-gay-conservative-professional-taxpaying-contributor-to-society understands why the political system holds such little appeal for his peers. “Look at the issues,” he says. “You see taxes. You see Medicare and Social Security. These things don’t connect well with us.”

Another reason elections seem to elicit a collective yawn by young people is that the sort of life-altering crises that galvanized previous generations—the Great Depression, World War I, World War II, civil rights, the Vietnam War—have yet to impact Millennials.

“There was a lot going on in our parents’ time, but that’s a lot different from the way things are now,” says Tara Wall, outreach press secretary for the Republican National Committee (RNC). “Americans are doing much, much better. In my opinion, need drives folks to the polls. I think that when folks get comfortable, they’re less likely to vote.”

Klugman, a politically active Democrat who volunteered for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s 2003 campaign and worked in the mayor’s office for several months following the election, cites the media’s infatuation with scandal as another reason many Millennials avoid politics like the plague.

“I think government represents us a lot better than most people think, but the media focuses on negative things. It doesn’t look at how a law helped an individual family; it looks at how a law screwed over a process for a bunch of citizens or how a politician is corrupt,” says Klugman, who plans to major in political science at Amherst and pursue a career in politics.

He argues that play-it-safe politicians only make a bad situation worse. “Very few politicians are willing to do anything bold anymore. They focus on what their party thinks and vote based on the polls because they want to get re-elected.”

Ultimately, however, the real reason young people don’t vote may be as simple as believing that their votes don’t matter. Some, says David Lisman, director of DU’s Service Learning Center, “believe that corporate America basically buys the election.”

Others, says Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., don’t yet see the relationship between voting and the quality of their lives. “Although the issue is complex and there are many contributing factors, I believe it boils down to young people not being interested enough to learn about the issues mainly because they don’t see how the decisions made by elected officials affect them personally. Once they make this connection though, they’ll be more likely to vote,” says Enzi, MBA ’68.

Still, while many worry that spiraling voter apathy is putting democracy at risk, he isn’t ready to sound an alarm.

“The concern over limited participation by young voters is not new. It’s been around since young people were first allowed to vote,” Enzi says. “History has shown us that young voter apathy is not lethal to our political system. Eventually, young people will get older and then they’ll be more interested in the importance of their participation in the political system.”

Politics, Millennial Style

Some Millennials are already politically active, and they are making it clear that they won’t play the game the way their predecessors did.

Their first stake in the ground is an abject refusal to be defined by political affiliation.

“Just because I’m a Democrat doesn’t mean I have to be defined by every single thing the party says,” says senior finance and economics major Travis Sydney, president of DU’s Young Democrats. “If a Republican has a good idea, I think it’s my duty to at least evaluate that.”

Greenawalt, who chaired the DU College Republicans chapter, is equally open-minded. “I would say that more and more people, including myself, can pull platforms from each party, or even a third party, and compile that to reflect their true beliefs.”

This attitude is light years away from that of past generations, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., thinks political parties are partially responsible for the Millennials’ independent streak. “In the last 30 years or so, campaigns have become more superficial. Both parties use 30-second advertisements to communicate who they are and what they stand for. Those ads don’t delineate the differences between the parties very well,” says Dorgan, MBA ’66.

The net result is that the vote-the-party-line days of New Deal Democrats and Barry Goldwater Republicans are over, at least for Millennials.

“We send team leaders talking points and help them promote the Republican agenda,” says the RNC’s Wall, but she admits college students aren’t willing to settle for a canned response. “College students are much more engaged and much less likely to take you at face value. They’re much more likely to probe and ask more questions. Healthy skepticism is how I’d sum it up.”

This isn’t to say that Millennials are ignoring all of the lessons of their youth. Research shows that young adults who grew up in homes where politics were discussed or where parents volunteered are much more likely to find their way to the polls on election day. Similarly, those who engage in volunteer activities in high school or college are more likely to vote than their peers.

“Most of the people who come to our office and are involved in service learning are the same people who are politically engaged. We don’t see a lot of apathy,” says Frank Coyne, senior community director for DU’s Service Learning Center. “I think their eyes are open to a lot of social issues. They feel more motivated to go to the polls.”

Sometimes, however, personal motivation isn’t enough, and Lisman believes colleges and universities should take a more active role in encouraging young people to vote.

“We should make a commitment to this,” Lisman says. “Part of higher education’s fundamental mission is to help promote the development of civically engaged young people.”

Educators around the country agree. Last May, 48 national higher education associations—including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), of which the University of Denver is a member—joined forces to launch Your Vote, Your Voice: The National Campus Voter Project.

“Nurturing America’s future leaders is the business of America’s colleges and universities,” says NAICU President David Warren, Your Vote, Your Voice co-chair. “Students receive rigorous intellectual training. Just as important is fostering a strong sense of civic awareness and involvement.”

In that regard, DU is already ahead of the curve. “I think DU is amazingly responsive. Students and faculty are very eager to participate,” says Zach Mack, who canvases DU and three institutions on the Auraria campus for the New Voters Project. “That’s not to say people aren’t eager on other campuses. They are. But there just hasn’t been enthusiasm to volunteer. A lot of people say they want to participate but they don’t have the time. At DU, people say, ‘I want to make this happen myself.’”

The Bottom Line

No one really knows if Millennials will turn out in force on Nov. 2. By the same token, no one disputes the impact young Americans will have if they vote. As a result, political parties are pulling out all stops to register voters and lure them to the polls. Both major parties laud efforts by MTV and the Hip Hop Summit to motivate young voters. Republicans tout upcoming stops by Reggie the Registration Rig on their Web site; Democrats report that supporters are active on more than 800 college campuses.

“There’s so much at stake that we have to be serious,” says Dan Geldon, executive director of the Democratic National Committee’s College Democrats of America.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., agrees. “Both parties are putting forth very distinct presidential candidates, and most indicators point to another very close election this fall,” says Domenici, JD ’58. “This means voter participation will be important. Every demographic has a chance to be pivotal in the presidential election.”

Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat, echoes that opinion. “I don’t know that there’s ever been an election more important than the one in 2004,” he says. “I think it’s critical for the American people to weigh and make their judgments known. What kind of country are we? What kind of foreign policy are we pursuing? How do we pursue the war against terrorism? What kind of relationships do we want? On the domestic side, there are education, healthcare and sound fiscal policy issues, just to name three. No matter how they feel about these issues, I really hope people go the polls and become part of making this democracy of ours work.”

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