By any reasonable measure, the 2000 presidential election was a disaster. Nobody knows for certain whether Bush or Gore won. And amidst Florida's voting irregularities and the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial intervention, there is another debacle of sorts that gets less attention. That is, four years ago less than 30 percent of 25 million eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24 voted. In other words, roughly 17 million young Americans that could have voted chose not to.
Charlotte Chinana speaks softly, but the passion in her voice is unmistakable when she talks about voter apathy, especially among her peers. Chinana, 24, wants her generation to get to the polls in November, and stop slacking off when it comes to engaging in politics. To do her small part, she dedicates her spare time registering first-time voters in Albuquerque. It's part of her volunteer role as state coordinator for Rock the Vote, a national volunteer organization working to get young adults involved in the upcoming presidential election, and beyond.
"We want to make sure people are involved in the process, because then our world would suck a little less, for starters," she said. That sentiment is shared by artists like John Mayer and Dave Mathews, who have requested that Rock the Vote volunteers have a presence at their upcoming Albuquerque concerts. Chinana said much of the funding for the organization's website (www.rockthevote.com) and limited expense account comes from these and other like-minded musicians who are unhappy about the current state of affairs in Washington, D.C. For example, Ozzfest, she said, "is totally down with it, because a lot of their artists are getting hit with new FCC censorship stuff."
What's more, Chinana said dozens of national voter registration organizations from all sides of the political spectrum have picked New Mexico as an important target. While these organizations might focus on particular ethnic, religious or politically partisan voting blocks, Rock the Vote trolls the movie theaters, concerts and university area, which houses a large, diverse number of TVI and UNM students.
"We try to be respectful of businesses," said Chinana, adding that in Albuquerque, Rock the Vote is comprised of 25 to 30 local volunteers. "Around UNM, that's an obvious hot spot."
Other groups, like the New Voters Project, a project of New Mexico Public Interest Research Group with funding from The Pew Charitable Trust, are working to register any young person, regardless of political affiliation.
"It's a catastrophe that so many young people don't think they have a say in politics, when they are often the ones most affected by (political decisions)," said James Moore, the project's state director. "Ask the 49 percent of American casualties in Iraq that were under the age of 22."
But the days of apathy among young adults may soon be over, according to a recent survey by Harvard University's School of Government, recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The survey notes that nearly 60 percent of college undergrads said they would be casting their vote come election time in November. An additional 27 percent said they were seriously considering it. The study cites the lingering questions surrounding the Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq as a galvanizing factor for the shift in interest among students.
Moore, 27, said these numbers indicate progress, but are still too low, considering how much the federal government's actions are affecting college-aged voters. For example, federally-funded programs, such as Pell grants and low-interest government backed loans, are for many students the best source for college funding at a time when tuition costs are soaring and the federal budget is operating in the red.
Meanwhile, Moore said the New Voters Project has registered 10,000 New Mexico voters this year alone, and expects to sign up 12,000 more before the Oct. 5 filing deadline. "We are operating a nontraditional campaign, because this is a nontraditional time," he said. "We are going to where young people are—gyms, restaurants and their places of employment—to give them the opportunity to make a difference."
Moore said the project also plans on calling every 18 to 24-year-old in the state with a listed telephone number in the next two months in a final effort to sign them up.
"The sad reality is that politics have for years ignored the plight of young people and turned them off," said Chinana, adding that her Rock the Vote "street team" has registered 5,600 voters this year alone. "I've had quite a few run-ins with politicians that dismissed me for being young and, I guess, female—just disregarding anything I had to say and not taking me seriously."
Kena Hudson, spokeswoman for state Sen. Richard Romero, a Democrat who is running for Congress in District One, said the best way for younger voters to attract attention from elected officials is to go to the polls and also contact elected representatives to raise issues that matter to them.
"If the college-aged demographic demanded attention, they would get it," Hudson said. "But they are taking themselves out of the equation (by not voting)."
Hudson said Romero's campaign does not have any program in place to register younger voters, specifically, but instead has implemented an "aggressive field campaign" that targets nonvoting New Mexicans of all ages.
Jane Altwies, a campaign spokesperson for Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson, who Romero is running against, gave this statement via email, when contacted by the Alibi: "Young voters are very important in any campaign, and they're very important to Rep. Wilson's grassroots efforts. As in years past, Rep. Wilson's campaign will reach out to voters of all ages."
According to the Harvard study, college students from both sides of the political fence are expected to turn out in higher numbers this November.
"In the American political system, whenever we've seen any major movements, a lot of it has been driven by the college-age population," said Daniel Glickman, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, in the Chronicle article. "To the extent that you don't get that youth involvement, that student involvement, in political action, the danger is that the political system atrophies and becomes a force of the status quo."