Voting is sexy 

Groups organize to rally the youth vote

click to enlarge Kerri Kuhn (left) during Paddle for the Presidencys - voyage down the Mississippi. - COURTESY OF KATIE ENGELMANN PADDLE FOR TEH PRESIDENCY
  • courtesy of Katie Engelmann Paddle for teh Presidency
  • Kerri Kuhn (left) during Paddle for the Presidencys voyage down the Mississippi.

For 12 weeks this summer, Kerri Kuhn spent her nights in sweaty tents and her days inside a 17-foot canoe.

Kuhn is one of 10 recent graduates of Colorado College who decided the best tools to fight youth voter apathy included canoes, rain gear, paddles, American flags and almost three months' worth of food and supplies -- in addition to the standard apparatus of voter registration cards and absentee ballot materials.

Kuhn, 23, is the executive director of Paddle for the Presidency, an organization launched last April that combines its members' desire for political activity and passion for the environment.

"Canoeing was a natural choice for the group because our love of country is directly linked to our love of the outdoors," said Kuhn.

The group is just one of dozens that are part of an unprecedented organized effort to get young people --historically the least participatory voting bloc -- to the polls in November.

MTV's Choose or Lose campaign and Rock the Vote are being joined by the local Hispanic cable channel Univision, the New Voter's Project, the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission and others who are working to let young people know that their votes are not wasted and that voting is the cool thing to do.

In a vicious cycle

Paddle for the Presidency's 2,300-mile, 10-state voyage is taking its motley crew through the heartland of some of the most important states in this year's presidential contest. The latest New York Times survey reports that Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas are all swing states.

The group's organizers seek to cash in on this potential with educational opportunities and entertainment as they highlight the importance of dialogue between politicians and young voters.

"The youth constituency finds itself stuck in a vicious cycle," Kuhn said. "When we neglect the ballot box, [politicians] push youth issues to the bottom of the agenda and our generation becomes more frustrated and apathetic.

"Most nonvoting young people are pretty educated and are more likely to feel overwhelmed and hopeless rather than indifferent," Kuhn continued. "So by canoeing the Mississippi River we are sending the message that young people aren't lazy and uncaring."

At events along the way, participants are asked to sign a pledge to vote; politicians who show up are asked to sign a pledge to pay attention to young people. Kuhn estimated that their group has reached more than 1,000 people so far.

The revolution is coming

In Colorado, in the 2000 presidential election, just 36 percent of 18- to 24-year-old citizens voted, ranking the Centennial State among the 13 with the lowest level of youth voter turnout, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Education.

Activists want that to change.

Even traditional political canvassers are revamping their approaches to increase voter registration. The New Voter's Project -- which was launched in February by several public interest groups -- is focusing efforts on person-to-person contacts, including at parades, festivals, supermarkets, rodeos and bars.

And why should the youth demographic vote? "Young people are going to be around for a while and they're going to have to live with the decisions that are made," said Kate Sargent, the New Voters Project Campus Organizer in Colorado Springs. "It's a relatively easy thing to show up one day every couple of years and give your opinion for things that are going to affect you for the next 30 to 50 years. I think it's pretty good use of time."

For the past several months, the New Voters Project has also been preparing for an all-out assault on new and returning college students at local campuses. Their plan of attack is simple.

"When students come back, they'll be asked to register to vote," said Sargent. This request might come while students are waiting in lines to register for classes, buy books, or get parking permits or ID photos taken.

Colorado was one of six states chosen for critical action by the New Voters Project. The other target states are New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Iowa and Wisconsin. In all of these states, the presidential campaign is a "close race," said Sargent, and with over 2 million youths combined in these states, young voters can have a powerful influence.

New Voters Project's goal for this state is to register 55,072 18- to 24-year-olds. Locally, the organization aims to register 650 people within this demographic at Colorado College, 873 at Pikes Peak Community College and 1,550 at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs .

"I think it's totally doable," Sargent said of the massive undertaking, noting they have registered 19,118 18- to 24-year-olds in the state and 2,678 in Colorado Springs alone so far this summer.

As a nonpartisan organization, the New Voters Project strives to register all people, regardless of their political leanings. "The polling is pretty split down the middle," said Sargent. "Most people we've found consider themselves fairly independent."

A cry heard every four years

The test of time will be the only true metric to gauge whether the groups' sometimes-creative approaches are successful. "'We're going to mobilize the youth vote' is a cry heard every four years," said Robert Loevy, professor of political science at Colorado College. "Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't."

The 18-to-30-year-old age group, who don't have the same incentives to vote as older people, are a hard demographic to predict, Loevy said, because they are focusing their lives on education, starting a career, finding a mate and being mobile -- not politics. With this kind of dynamic, Loevy said, "it makes perfect sense" that young people are the least participatory demographic.

click to enlarge Kate Sargent, the New Voters Project Campus Organizer - in Colorado Springs. - SUNNIE SACKS
  • Sunnie Sacks
  • Kate Sargent, the New Voters Project Campus Organizer in Colorado Springs.

While young people may not have formed the voting habit at this stage in their lives, they are available for recruitment by both parties. The current slew of voter registration and educational efforts are aiming for that desired effect. Democrats, particularly, are hoping that more youth voters means more votes against Bush, said Loevy.

"If it's a very close election and exit polls show more youth voting for Mr. Kerry, the plan will have worked," said Loevy. "If exit polls show young voters voting essentially like the rest of the country, [it will not have worked]."

Across the nation, bigwig politicians are not ignoring the youth vote this election cycle. The lesson of the 2000 presidential election is every vote matters, and as both candidates battle for additional help in swing states, each is striving to appeal to youth.

"This election is about you," said Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry about 18- to 30-year-old voters, in a recent voter issues paper published by the World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown Your Vote! campaign.

"Don't doubt you can change the world," Kerry continued. "Only doubt those who say you can't."

President George W. Bush is also urging young people to turn out. "The best way to have confidence in the political process is to get involved," said Bush in the same issues paper.

"This [presidential] campaign is a debate about very important issues, and all people should make an informed choice on November 2."

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