Two Saturdays ago, I put on my best purple shirt (more on that later) and spent a few hours with a local organization that's trying to stay relevant in a changing world.
We're talking about the League of Women Voters, though a few members here — and across the country — are actually men.
This was the League's annual meeting, and members apparently wanted a guest speaker who a) wouldn't charge, and b) might not put everyone to sleep after lunch. The more I thought about it, this seemed like an opportunity to share an idea.
First, I talked about growing up in "a place called Hope," as fellow native Bill Clinton called it when running for president 20 years ago. But that little town of about 10,000 in southwest Arkansas has produced far more than a governor who went on to the White House. Several members of Clinton's administration, notably chief of staff Mack McLarty and counsel Vince Foster, came from Hope. As mentioned here before, I went to high school and worked in radio with Mike Huckabee, who also would become governor and run for president. Past and present, Hope has cultivated prominent state legislators, judges and congressmen.
Why so many from one small town? We could talk about good teachers in schools (a familiar line: "I taught your momma and daddy, and they were smart"), but another big reason was political involvement. The political evolution in Arkansas inspired many young people to work actively for candidates and movements. One catalyst in the 1960s was moderate Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller (brother of former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller), who had the money to pull together large numbers of teens and college kids.
Young people wanting to participate in the political process — to me, that was always the secret to so many leaders coming out of Hope.
So why not here and now, in Colorado Springs? Why not create a framework for high school and college students to learn about candidates, issues and personal involvement as they reach the age of being able to vote?
Let's be clear: I'm not talking about starting clubs for Young Republicans and Young Democrats at every high school and college.
Instead, my proposal is to develop a neutral, nonpartisan group. Already, suggestions for possible names include "League of Young Voters" or simply "Young Colorado Voters."
It could start with a meeting of anyone ages 17 to 25 from across the city and region. They could gather, come up with their own ideas, and begin hearing presentations, discussions and debates covering all sides. Perhaps it could build from there into a single, large political forum (or perhaps one for high school students, and another for colleges) during the fall campaign. They would determine their own goals, such as convincing as many young adults as possible to care about voting.
The Independent would support it, but our involvement would mostly be limited to getting the word out. (That's why I wore the purple shirt, as opposed to red or blue.) As for making it happen, that's where the nonpartisan organizations come in.
At the end of that April 28 talk, the League of Women Voters expressed some interest, and it's since helped to generate a number of follow-up e-mails. I've also contacted Kristy Milligan, executive director of Citizens Project, and she's been supportive, saying, "We could definitely help promoting such an effort, and could likely turn out volunteers." She believes it might mesh well with work by the Pikes Peak Equality Coalition "to empower young voters."
Of course, it won't go anywhere unless enough of the area's young adults want it to happen. This is just a rough guess, but I'd estimate that somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 local teens will become eligible to vote in 2012 (and every year), not to mention those who already have turned 18.
We've seen how voter apathy has become so prevalent among middle-aged and older people. So why not tackle the problem at the front end, and make young people want to be involved?
If it works, who knows, we might even have a president from Colorado Springs someday.