CHICAGO – When Greta Honold saw her best friend on TV, standing next to Democrat Wesley Clark (search), her jaw dropped.
"How cool is that?" said the 18-year-old senior at Chicago's Northside College Preparatory High School, which has sent several students to get a firsthand look at the race for the Democratic nomination.
Cool? To be standing next to a politician?
It's exactly what teacher Tim Devine expects to hear from students in his advanced-placement government class, Honold among them. Their interest in politics is, as he puts it, "off the charts," an anomaly in an era when increasingly larger percentages of young people don't even bother to vote.
Experts say it's also an example of what's possible when young people are engaged in the political process. And this election year, activists are out to prove it — with more coordinated, better-funded efforts to get young voters to the polls.
The Pew Charitable Trust (search), for instance, is pouring millions of dollars into a grass-roots, nonpartisan effort called the New Voters Project.
The aim is to get more young voters, particularly those 18 to 24, to the polls this November in states where the project will be focussed: Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin. Organizers hope to show politicians how to do it — with peer-centered, face-to-face drives in precincts that have large numbers of youth.
They have their work cut out for them.
Since 1972, when the voting age was dropped to 18, young people have been increasingly disinterested in casting a ballot for president. Turnout hit an all-time low in 2000, when an estimated 42 percent of voters 18- to 24-year olds went to the polls. That compares with 70 percent of adults 25 and older who voted that year, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, based at the University of Maryland.
Many wonder if Democrat Howard Dean's (search) failure — despite support from a strong core of young people — will only add to the younger generation's political apathy. And even some young people who want to vote are skeptical that this election will reverse the long-standing trend.
"Now that it's our turn, a lot of people don't want to take responsibility," says 18-year-old Juan Pablo Prieto, another of Devine's students.
Meredith Hork, a 20-year-old sophomore majoring in business and sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, agrees that many students don't have the time or inclination to track the candidates. But she also says candidates don't focus enough on getting their message to students.
Researchers say that's a common complaint.
"It's kind of a vicious cycle. Young people's issues aren't discussed, so they have less interest. And so on," says Molly Andolina, a political science professor at DePaul University and co-author of a 2002 study titled "The Civic and Political Health of the Nation."
The study, based on surveys, included a profile of what researchers called "Generation DotNet," respondents ages 15 to 25.
They found that younger generation was, indeed, politically disengaged.
Only 24 percent of DotNets said they followed government and public affairs "very often," compared with 60 percent of elderly voters, 50 percent of baby boomers and 37 percent of Gen Xers.
Researchers also found the youngest group were the most distrustful, with 70 percent agreeing with the statement that, "Most people would take advantage of you."
Alex Hart, a junior at Michigan State University, says his peers' wariness certainly extends to those who run for office.
"People our age see politicians as swindlers — people who will say anything to get elected," says Hart, who's leaning toward voting for the Constitution party's presidential candidate because he feels that President Bush has abandoned some conservative causes.
Still, he's not voting because he thinks he has to.
"I don't think it's my duty to vote," Hart says. "I vote because there are a lot of things that matter to me."
That, too, was a common sentiment among young people in the 2002 survey, who were not motivated by the argument that voting is a civic responsibility — though they are civic-minded in others ways.
Andolina and her colleagues found, for instance, that the DotNetters are just as likely as other generations to express their views through boycotts or protests. They're also more likely to volunteer — 40 percent of those surveyed said they'd engaged in at least some volunteer activity in the past year, compared with a third of Gen Xers and baby boomers, and less than a quarter of elderly respondents.
"People always talk about voting as if voting indicates how much youth are involved and interested," says David Burd, a 23-year-old Harvard University law student who helped form the Boston chapter of the group Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century.
"They might wonder, 'If I vote, will it matter?'" he adds. "But they might see a soup kitchen and say, 'If I volunteer there, I know I'll make a difference.'"
Tanya Gaspar, president of the Monterey Bay Young Republicans in northern California, also notes that many people who volunteer for candidates are in their 20s.
She says her group's efforts this year will include working precincts to get young voters registered — and encouraging them to sign "permanent absentee" cards so they don't miss any elections in their home districts.
The New Voters Project is taking a slightly different tack, by encouraging college students to register in the state where they attend school. Once they're registered, peer leaders will then contact them on election day by phone or — some say, better yet — by showing up on their doorsteps, offering rides to the polls.
"It's traditional 'knock-and-drag' stuff," says Ivan Frishberg, outreach and communications coordinator for the New Votes Project, which is largely based on "Get Out The Vote" research conducted by researchers at Yale University.
Frishberg also notes that MTV's "Choose or Lose" campaign is bigger this year. And he says that all efforts aimed at getting youth to register and vote — from the music industry's "Rock the Vote" to World Wrestling Entertainment's "Smack Down Your Vote" — are coordinating their efforts.
Andolina, at DePaul, says she has "a lot of hope" that the New Voters Project will become a model for politicians from all parties.
Still, she cautions that the solution is not a one-step process. She says political involvement also must be encouraged by everyone from friends and members of the clergy to after-school program organizers, teachers — and especially a young person's family.
Nikhar Ahmed, another of Devine's students at the Chicago high school, understands the power of the latter.
She and her father plan to go to the polls together this year, each of them voting for the first time after recently receiving their U.S. citizenship.
"He and I might vote for different people — but it's OK," says Ahmed, a young Muslim of Indian descent. "We'll be there and it's exciting."