Informing the youth vote

January 17, 2008 2:28:19 PM PST
They love using their iPods, laptops and cell phones for political information, yet many young adults say they aren't quite sure how to get a ballot in the first place. On top of that, information overload from all the tech toys gets in the way of finding news sources they can trust. Confusing absentee ballots and a lack of faith in the system also may turn young voters into no-shows at the polls.

Andy Weisman, a 23-year-old research analyst from Arlington, Va., simply looks up information in a newspaper about the candidates. Still, he says, plenty of people his age are turned off voting by "not knowing enough about the candidates and not knowing how to find out about the candidates."

More than 20 million people younger than 30 cast their votes in 2004's presidential election. But, at 49 percent, that's still lower than the overall turnout of 64 percent.

"They are so overwhelmed with all the different information," says Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator for the University Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which has studied why young people don't vote. "In almost every single focus group, bias and spin in the media came up totally spontaneously."

For reaching young voters, the messenger appears to be more important than the message. They rely on family and friends, Kiesa said. Social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, have also emerged as serious campaign tools.

Once they connect with a candidate, what can young voters do to prepare to cast their ballots? Some common questions and answers for taking that next step:

-How do I register to vote?

Mary Krulia, a 22-year-old Washington legal assistant from Lancaster, Ohio, plans to cast her primary election vote from Washington in March. "But I need to re-register somehow," she said. "I need to call the board of elections and see what I need to do."

To find out about a state's voting regulations and to print out a registration form, go to www.rockthevote.com.

The Federal Election Commission also produces a downloadable guide for voters about how to register categorized by state available at http://www.fec.gov/votregis/pdf/nvra.pdf.

Laws vary by state, but voters must register well before an election. In California, for example, voters must register 15 days before going to the polls. In Michigan and Louisiana, voters must register 30 days in advance.

-Should I register where I attend school?

Students who don't have to leave campus to vote are more likely to punch the chads, according to a study by the civic learning and engagement center. However, two-thirds of college students in the last election were not registered where they went to school.

Yet registering could mean changing official residence and all that entails, such as getting a new driver's license, serving on a jury or paying taxes. It's a hassle many students want to avoid.

In Michigan, college students are required to register in the same district as their permanent address.

"This law really disenfranchises college students in the state," said Brandon Hynes, 20, of Canton, Mich., president of College Democrats of Michigan. "If you live on the east side of the state, in November weather could be bad, making it really difficult to vote."

Absentee voting is a process that must start weeks before the election. It's a deterrent to last-minute voters, Hynes says.

-How do I learn when an election is being held?

Rhett Skelton, a 25-year-old Arlington, Va., voter originally from Houston, said the difficulty of finding out about the logistics of voting and the issues at stake are deterrents for younger voters.

"Since it's only one day, most people don't know about which day it is," Skelton said.

To see the 2008 primary election calendar, voters can visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program's Web site at http://www.fvap.gov/pubs/primarycal.html. They can also keep track of their local elections by checking with their local election boards.

-What can I expect when I go to my polling place?

Depending on turnout, a voter may have to wait in line at the polling place, often a school, fire station, church or other public building in the voter's neighborhood.

The voter signs in with precinct officials, and a volunteer worker checks the voter's name with the official roster of registered voters. (Bringing identification may make this process easier.) The voter typically signs a log showing he or she received a ballot.

The voter then takes the ballot and enters a voting booth, usually made private by a curtain.

The technology and ballots used for an election are different throughout the county. Some precincts are entirely computerized with touch-screen ballots while others require voters to fill in bubbles corresponding to the candidate and then feed the ballot into a machine that will read the vote.

-Does voting really matter to me at this time in my life?

That's a tougher question. Sarah Godlewski, 25, a Washington patent attorney, acknowledges that the immediate effect of voting can be hard to see for a young voter.

"They don't understand the connection as far as voting and how it can impact the community and that their vote can make a difference," Godlewski said. "I think they feel like another number."

Boris Sanders, 35, a chief election officer for a precinct in Northern Virginia, said young people see voting as merely a symbolic gesture.

"Whether it's that they believe their vote has no real significance or that somebody else will cancel out their vote or they're just completely disenchanted with the political system." Sanders said. "So they choose not to spend the few minutes it takes to come out."

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On the Net:

Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement: http://www.civicyouth.org/

Rock the Vote: www.rockthevote.com

FEC voters guide: http://www.fec.gov/votregis/pdf/nvra.pdf

Federal Voting Assistance Program: http://www.fvap.gov/pubs/primarycal.html

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