August 2, 2004
Couri Widmer sees the Nov. 2 general election as her first opportunity to change the future of this country and her adopted state of Arizona.
A Chicago-area native, the 19-year-old junior at Arizona State University will cast her first ballots this year for president and the state Legislature. Count on her to vote for Democrats such as presidential nominee John Kerry. And Widmer is convinced enough that other college-age people will join her to shape the outcome of an expected tight election.
“Ever since Sept. 11, (2001), people have been like ‘Why does the world hate us?’ ” Widmer said. “It’s something about the way the policies are made in this country. That has got to change.”
The trend over the past 30 years has been a steady decline in voter turnout among those 18 to 24. But with growing worries about global terrorism and Americans’ conduct in Iraq, political organizers and some voting experts believe there’s an opportunity to reverse that apathy among young adults.
A March survey by Harvard University’s Institute on Politics found that 62 percent of college undergraduates planned to vote for president this year, compared with 50 percent in a similar poll in 2000. Both presidential campaigns are putting more time and money into building support on university campuses.
“The thing I’m seeing now that I haven’t seen in the past . . . is they are coming to us and asking how they can get involved instead of us going to them,” said Manny Espinoza, 24, of Tucson, co-chairman of Students for Bush in Arizona. “9/11 was basically the defining moment for our generation, and that’s really energized a lot of the youth to become active and support the president.”
But a new trend in 2004 is creation of independent political groups by young adults, for young adults.
“We know the music, we know the art, we know where people want to go,” said Matt Garcia, 24, a recent ASU graduate and freelance photojournalist. “The scene is pretty young, and some political organizer over 40 isn’t going to know what’s going on.”
Much like MTV’s more established “Rock the Vote” campaign, some of the new groups focus on registering new voters wherever young adults hang out, such as concerts.
But other groups believe they must go further to draw young adults into politics.
Garcia and Widmer are part of the League of Independent Voters, created a year ago to recruit young adults to actively lobby for change at the local and national level. The league held its first national training session last week in Columbus, Ohio.
“Our target demographic is 17- to 35-year-old nonvoters, including poor folk, people of color, hip-hop, punk, anarchists — folks who need some long-term change,” said Adrienne Brown, the league’s project director, in an e-mail interview.
“We are not a voter registration (group). We organize nonvoters to become voters and then educate themselves and their community in an effort to go to the polls in informed blocs.”
Valley members are planning to prepare their own voter guide on competitive general election races for Congress and the Legislature. The local group is led by Sambo Dul, 21,a native of Cambodia whose family came to the Valley when she was 5.
Dul hasn’t obtained her citizenship, so she can’t vote in this year’s election. But the ASU senior said she wants to help others exercise the most fundamental of American rights.
“There’s just too much on the line for me to pass up getting involved,” Dul said. “This goes beyond Nov. 2, and it goes beyond young people voting in this election and maybe, possibly, changing the political landscape in which we find ourselves. It’s about developing young leaders who are going to be able to affect politics for election after election after election. We also want to get people accessed into the political process so that they continue to affect it.”
Not everyone is convinced that such efforts will increase interest in voting. Bruce Merrill, a political pollster and ASU professor, said candidates and political groups have been trying for years to tap the passion and frustration of young adults.
But voter turnover among 18- to 24-year-olds has continued to drop, even for presidential elections. In Arizona, turnout has fallen from 48 percent in 1972 to just 28 percent in 2000, according to the University of Maryland. That’s compared with a steady turnout of 62 percent for people older than 25.
“The (Iraq) war might bring a few more people out,” Merrill said. “But I’ve seen no evidence in anything I’ve done that there’s going to be any significant increase in young people voting in this election.”