Boston Students Query Politicians
Likelihood of those aged 18 to 24 voting has been dwindling in recent elections. GETTING THE YOUNG INTO THE VOTING BOOTH
IN a dimly lit auditorium at Boston's English High School, students took time from their classes to hear about issues affecting their neighborhoods, their schools, and their city.The event was a political forum, featuring seven candidates for office and about 140 concerned students. For more than an hour, students grilled the panel of Boston City Council candidates on a range of issues including school funding, bilingual education, drug treatment programs, and teen employment. For students of voting age, it was good preparation for the coming November election. "I want to hear what [these candidates] have to say, see what it's all about," says Diane Weekes, a student who will be voting in the city elections next month. "I care because it affects me as a senior in high school, coming out into the real world. I want to vote to influence the election." But unlike Ms. Weekes, many young people don't think much about voting. Over the past decade, voter participation among young people aged 18 to 24 has steadily declined in United States presidential elections. And although that trend is part of an overall decline in voter participation, statistics show that young people generally are the least likely to vote of any age group. Thirty-six percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 1988 presidential election, compared with 67 percent of Americans 25 and older, according to a 1990 Los Angeles Times Mirror study on young people and political awareness. Such lack of voter participation is why political registration activists, youth groups, and educators are targeting the youth vote this year - the 20th anniversary of a US constitutional amendment giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. "You have young people with both this very skewed and uninformed view and understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy," says Sanford Horwitt, who works on youth voter registration projects for People for the American Way. "There's very little understanding when you ask them how important voting is." One reason young people don't vote is that they tend to be highly mobile. Many move away from home to live at college, join the military, or start a new job. College students, in particular, don't like the hassle of registration and absentee ballots. "It's kind of the excepted wisdom that college students just don't vote," says Steve Satran, executive director of the College Republican National Committee. "There's a lot of confusion over where they can vote, if they're supposed to vote at home or if they can vote on campus." Another reason cited is that young people are simply uninterested and uninformed. According to the Times Mirror poll, today's young people aged 18 to 30 know less about current news issues than any other generation of Americans in the past 50 years. The study also found that America's younger generation generally registers 20 percent less interest in major news stories than those 30 and older. But the view that young people are generally apathetic is not accepted by everyone. Although today's young people may be less apt to vote, they are getting more involved through single-issue campaigns on such topics as the environment, abortion, consumer rights, and recycling. "I don't think we necessarily need to conclude that young people don't care about issues," says Alyson Reed, project manager for election services for the League of Women Voters in Washington. But young people don't understand that voting is one of the most fundamental ways to get politically involved, says Mr. Horwitt. He cites a recent survey conducted by People for the American Way which asked young people to define what it means to be a good citizen. A typical answer, he says, was that it was a to be a "nice and good person. A good citizen does not break the law." Voting was not a high priority. But Horwitt is hoping to change that attitude by registering more young people over the next year. His group is promoting voter registration in schools through videos and a civics education program. In addition, the League of Women Voters is working around the country to hold registration drives at fast-food chains, record and video stores, rock concerts, and shopping malls. One group, called Rock the Vote, based in Los Angeles, gets the message out through music video announcements for MTV featuring popular music celebrities like Madonna, Hammer, Iggy Pop, and Ice T. In high schools here in Boston, city officials and the local League of Women Voters are organizing a voter-registration program and a mock city election along with the political forum. Peggy Kemp, chairman of the history department at Boston Latin School, helped organize the political forum. She says teachers need to spend more time on voter education and classes on government. A political forum like the one she organized is "just as important as sitting in a class and taking notes or taking a test," she says. Students at the forum, however, have mixed reactions. Sean Cronin, a sophomore, says many students just are not interested in politics or voting. "There certainly are people who are politically active who are my age, but not a great majority," he says. "Students don't see what effect government has on their daily lives. They don't think they have to get politically involved." But sophomore Dan Farnkoff, who admits that one reason he attended the forum was "to get out of class," also expressed interest in pursuing politics as a career.