Candidates fail to reach young voters; apathy widespread

Megan Boldt

University student Louise Ewald will cast her ballot in the Nov. 7 election, but her driving force is not a desire to vote — it’s a sense of civic duty.
“People probably should vote, even though (your vote) doesn’t have that much effect on the system,” the 18-year-old said.
Many young voters, like Ewald, approach election day with the same amount of apathy — or sometimes even worse. They say they feel detached from the issues candidates raise.
According to the Minnesota Demographic Center and the Secretary of State, only 38 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds voted during the 1996 election, compared to 71 percent of 65- to 69-year-olds.
Ewald brushes aside the debates about prescription drugs and Social Security; they are not main concerns for her, she said. She affirmed the U.S. Senate candidates craft well-rounded campaigns, but their issues don’t personally affect her.
She is concerned with K-12 education, Ewald said, because she worries about the quality of her younger siblings’ education.
“Younger students are getting cheated out of essential educational needs,” she said.
Independence Party U.S. Senate candidate James Gibson said he understands why some younger voters became apathetic about the issues, especially around the time of the September primary elections.
According to statistics, Gibson said, senior citizens are a major primary contest voting block, and many candidates take that into account.
“The problem for students in the primaries was the issues were geared toward seniors,” Gibson said. “Hopefully, throughout the rest of the campaign, candidates will have a broader base.”
While these strategies may make some students feel candidates are not addressing their issues, other students disagree.
Nineteen-year-old University student Brian Blaser said education, along with Medicare, are important issues. He said the skyrocketing prices for prescription drugs are especially disturbing.
DFL U.S. Senate candidate Mark Dayton said students should be concerned with health care. He said the 18- to 30-year-old age group is the largest of uninsured citizens.
“The outcome of the elections will have a huge impact on students and young voters,” he explained.
Republican candidate Sen. Rod Grams could not be reached for comment.
Whether thrilled or uninterested by the issues this campaign season, young voters are generally not as issue-oriented as older voters are, said Bill Flanigan, a University political science professor.
“This is not a new thing,” he explained.
The non-voter can, at times, be compelled to go to the polls.
In 1998, Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura shocked the state and the nation with his gubernatorial victory over DFL opponent, former Attorney General Skip Humphrey, and the Republican contender, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.
Minnesota’s voter turnout was the highest in the nation at 60 percent, unique for a non-presidential election year.
Flanigan said although this election season is different from 1998, Ventura as a candidate can’t be compared to other political candidates. His unabashed personality drew atypical voters, he explained.
“It was his maverick, anti-party attitude that appealed to the non-voter,” Flanigan said. “Plus, the party candidates didn’t have great appeal and also had negative campaigns.”
He cautioned that Ventura’s effect would probably not lurk around this election season.
Gibson, on the other hand, said a Ventura-like effect could regenerate:
“It could happen if the candidates look like they can win and get people excited.”
Political bashing is one part of campaigning that has survived and prospered. And it gets attention. But 23-year-old University student Tricia Conway said she wants to hear more issue talk and less dirt.
Conway plans to vote for Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the presidential election, she said. Her Republican upbringing led her to the decision — she really doesn’t know much about his policies, she said.
“I do know Bush called some reporter an asshole,” Conway said. “You only hear the bad things about candidates.”
University student Newell Hill said he doesn’t have much time to follow the elections. But when the 19-year-old reads the paper or watches television, he sees more negative campaiging and media coverage and not enough substance.
“I haven’t seen anything about the issues themselves,” he said.
Youth apathy was not as prevalent in previous generations. Flanigan said when the grandparents and parents of Generation Xers were 21, people were more likely to vote than today’s 20-somethings.
“The political culture was different then,” Flanigan explained.
Not only did more people vote, but a larger amount of young voters were party-affiliated compared to today’s youth.
Seasoned voter Shirley Rubbert agreed that attitudes have changed with time since she turned 21 in the 1950s. Rubbert said her generation was taught voting was a privilege — a patriotic, civic duty.
And she didn’t take it for granted, she said. Rubbert hasn’t missed voting in an election in her entire life.
She said she sees a different attitude among her children and grandchildren’s generations. The younger voters have the my-vote-doesn’t-count attitude, Rubbert said, and that upsets her.
“It saddens me to see the apathy in our society,” she said.
But Flanigan said that, when talking about the youth vote, it is misleading to always group young voters together. They are as different in their voting strategies as any other demographic group, whether male or female, educated or non-educated, rich or poor.
“Youth are politically interesting because they are so different,” he said.