Monday, November 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Programs aimed to propel youths toward the polls

Seattle Times staff reporter

They were afraid of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." They were wary of a generation of discontented, bra-burning, pot-smoking kids. And they doubted 18-year-olds were mature enough to take voting seriously.

Three decades ago, Sam Reed, now Washington's secretary of state, faced the trepidation of elders as he and a bipartisan coalition campaigned to lower the voting age in Washington state. But Reed's fear — the disenfranchisement of America's young adults — trumped theirs.

"I was seeing young people becoming radicalized on both the left and the right," said Reed, who was 30 at the time and working as assistant secretary of state under Lud Kramer. "These are the people who felt they don't have a sense of ownership in this country. I wanted them to get involved in the mainstream of the American political system.

Youth vote

To find more information about the National Student Voices Project and to learn what youths are saying about politics and local elections, go to:
"If you're in the system and you don't think something is right, you need to change it."

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which lowered the national voting age from 21 to 18. It was a momentous achievement for advocates across the country. But in the years since, they have had to work just as hard getting young people to exercise that hard-fought right.

"If they're talking about young people, then I'll listen," said Jonelle Foster, 17, who participated in a recent civic project designed to engage youth in politics. "But I can't sit through a presidential speech or somebody talking about what is right, what they should do."

Reed believes in starting voters young. Voting is Cool, a collaboration between his office and county auditors, offers lesson plans and projects for students in elementary school and high school.

"I do have optimism," Reed said. "I see a young generation committed more to their community. You see high-school kids involved in Habitat for Humanity, tutoring, cleaning the streams. These things have become standard, but that hasn't translated into getting involved in the political system."

Nationally, voter turnout of 18- to 24-year-olds in presidential elections has dwindled from a high of nearly 50 percent in 1972 to 32 percent in 1996, according to a U.S. census survey. In Washington state, about 28 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in last year's general election.

Reed's message to alienated voters now is the same as it was when he was a young agitator: One vote counts.

For proof, Reed points to last year's Senate race between Slade Gorton and Maria Cantwell.

Gorton was leading as election night wore on. Then, Reed recalled, votes from precincts around Western Washington University, the University of Washington and The Evergreen State College tipped the race to Cantwell.

Researchers say young people don't vote for many reasons older voters also cite: complacency in times of prosperity; cynicism fueled by political scandals and mud-slinging campaigns; questionable political fund-raising practices; and media coverage that focuses excessively on strategy.

Some potential young voters also say they're just too busy.

"Young people have a lot on their mind," said Danielle Santiago, 17, a Cleveland High School student. "You're turning 18, you're graduating, going to college. You're thinking about the future and your living situation."

The National Student Voices Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania has targeted what many think is at the core of poor youth voting: a lack of knowledge about civics, a dearth of political discourse in their families and the failure of politicians to reach out to them.

Young people think politics is "very removed from anything that affects their lives," said Phyllis Kaniss, the national director of the Student Voices Project. "And then the candidates say, 'Why spend time there if they don't vote?' "

Since 1999, Student Voices has collaborated with school districts in various cities to bring the act of voting closer to home.

In Seattle, several high schools participated in Student Voices through the University of Washington's Center for Communication and Civic Engagement, conducting class projects related to tomorrow's election, inviting candidates to speak and engaging in online discussions about the races.

Most of the students in Stephanie Wolk's class at Cleveland High feared boredom when they heard about the project. They knew little about the candidates or the issues.

Then they attended a forum featuring Seattle mayoral candidates Mark Sidran and Greg Nickels.

Some thought the candidates were more straightforward in person than they expected. But others felt both danced around the questions.

"Throughout the debate, they were beating around the bush, not being straightforward," said Abdi Farah, 17. "I came there with a lot of questions and I left with a lot of questions."

Despite that experience, the students became more informed and more interested, according to Wolk.

The test lies ahead: When they turn 18, will they vote?

Keiko Morris can be reached at 206-464-3214.


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