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Talking it Over
November 1, 2000
After the 1998 election, a survey of 18- to 24-year-olds conducted by the National Association of Secretaries of State drew this frightening conclusion: We may be witnessing the emergence of a permanent class of non-voters.
In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act, or "Motor Voter" law went into effect. Aimed at young voters especially, Motor Voter proved a stunning success. The idea of registering people to vote as they applied for a driver's license added 11 million new names to the list of registered voters.
But something happened on the way to the voting booth: They didn't come. Although Motor Voter was successful at adding millions to the rolls, the turnout was lower than for any election since 1924. Now we need to get those who've registered to actually go to the polls on Election Day.
Over the course of the past eight years, I have traveled all over the world. Many times I have visited emerging democracies where, just as they did in this country, patriots fought and died for the right to vote. I've met people who have stood in line for hours -- sometimes even days -- to exercise their hard-fought and precious new right.
Why, then, are Americans turning their back on this privilege -- the cornerstone of our democracy?
In 1960, 63 percent of the electorate voted. By 1996, that number had dropped to under 40 percent, leaving us to ask: What will it take to remind the American public that voting is not just a precious right, but in Lyndon Johnson's words, "the first duty of democracy"?
Leading up to this year's election, I have received several letters from newly turned 18-year-olds asking the same question: "Why should I vote?" They are convinced that, in a climate where elections seem to turn on who spends the most money on TV ads, casting a ballot is meaningless. And they are not alone.
In 1998, fewer than one in five 18- to 24-year-olds voted. When asked why by the NASS researchers, they cite a number of reasons: They feel ignored by politicians; they feel their vote doesn't really count; and they say that they don't get the kind of information they need to make an informed decision.
The survey concludes that the single factor that most influences whether a young person will vote is whether his or her parents vote. But almost half of this group reported that they never -- or almost never -- talked about politics, government, or current events with their parents.
There is at least one hopeful sign that might help us bring this generation into the process: More than half of them volunteer on a regular basis, and 94 percent define the most important aspect of citizenship as "helping others." I hope that the trend toward service learning in the schools will provide the opportunity for young people to see that the work they do in their communities, and the issues they care about as a result, can be and are affected by what happens in the voting booth.
There are 70.2 million people in this country under 20. The thought that this huge segment of the population might never bother to vote for President or governor, state legislator or town clerk, is extraordinarily alarming. It is incumbent on those of us who do vote, who do believe in the power of one vote to change history, and who do believe in our system of government to consider very carefully how best to bring them into the political process.
Young people today are doers. According to the survey, they are less pessimistic than their elders, and with the exception of Social Security, they care about many of the same issues: education and violence, the economy and jobs.
If you are skeptical about whether your vote can make a difference, think about this: If indeed you care about education and jobs; if you care about the Supreme Court and individual rights; if you care about hate crimes, the military and foreign policy; if you care about health care and welfare reform, or paying down the national debt; if you care about global warming and protecting the environment, you owe it to yourself and your country to vote.
It doesn't matter if you're black or white, old or young, rich or poor, male or female, Republican or Democrat. Don't throw this precious privilege away. When you wake up next Tuesday, please go vote.
If you'd like to use the Internet to learn more about the candidates and issues, you can start here: www.stateofthevote.org; www.vote-smart.org; www.bettercampaigns.org; www.voter.com; www.speakout.com.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
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