CLEVELAND – Too young to vote, Sam Herbert (search) and thousands of other teens have set an idealistic goal: getting out an additional 25 million voters in the Nov. 2 election.
"I don't think there's any age too young to start to get involved in the political process," said the 16-year-old Chandler, Ariz., high school junior.
His group, the nonpartisan Freedom's Answer (search), opens its national meeting Thursday in Cleveland. It hopes to register voters and, through personal contacts, enlist 2.5 million students in 10,000 schools to get pledges from relatives, friends and neighbors to vote.
Like any group of teens determined to meet a yearbook deadline or find a way to pay for a concert outing, Herbert and a sample of the 250 teens attending the Freedom's Answer convention have a youthful enthusiasm they may need to overcome historic voter apathy.
In 2000, when George Bush (search) beat Al Gore (search) by 537 votes in Florida to win the presidency, turnout was 51.2% among voting-age Americans. The turnout has been dropping since a 62.8% turnout in 1960 in the Kennedy-Nixon election.
This year should be different, Herbert figures, because the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will root out voter indifference, especially among young people. Turnout among Americans 24 and younger has been estimated at 42% or lower.
"For a lot of people, 9/11 hit them. Everything is not free. They are going to have to work," said Herbert, whose parents and four voting-age siblings are split between Democrats and Republicans. Herbert described himself as an independent and kept his own choice for president secret to maintain the nonpartisan image of Freedom's Answer.
In addition to one-on-one personal persuasion to honor the nation's military by voting, Freedom's Answer tries to encourage political involvement with a Web site that tries to match a person's views to a candidate: www.visiontreesoftware.com.
Freedom's Answer is supported by foundation, government and corporate grants. It provided expense money to 100 of the 250 convention delegates and pays to send young speakers around the country to make a pitch to youth groups.
Jessica Singleton of Kingsport, Tenn., a recent high school graduate who will attend the American University of Paris in the fall and then Middlebury College, headed to Cleveland after speaking assignments at Princeton and Yale universities. She said a big challenge in getting young people involved politically is overcoming an image problem.
"Everyone wants to talk about the cool things — MTV, things like that," said Singleton, whose taste for cable news channels gets a roll of the eyes from friends. "They think I'm weird for doing that. It's just not the thing to do."
Singleton, a Democrat who registered to vote promptly after her 18th birthday in February, supports John Kerry for president but thinks she's better off promoting a big turnout on a nonpartisan basis than working for his campaign.
"This cause is so important to me. It doesn't make any sense to me to go and try to promote John Kerry when he's got a full paid staff doing that," she said.
Michael Gulick of Ocala, Fla., a recent high school graduate and at 19 one of the "old men" of Freedom's Answer, supports President Bush but wants to take a step back from party politics while attending George Washington University (search).
"I truly believe that more important than who actually wins is who turns out at the polls," he said.
Tim Waters, who directs voter registration drives for two Kerry-backing unions, the United Steelworkers of America and Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers, said young people can be effective confronting relatives and friends about the duty to register and vote.
"Absolutely it works," Waters said from Pittsburgh. "It works when people see their kids that aren't yet able to work in the process. That's a challenge."
Colleen Grady, who leads the Bush campaign voter registration drive in Cleveland and its suburbs, said teens, like politically active neighbors, can be effective recruiting voters because of common interests.
Still, adults may not have shared concerns with teens, Grady said. "But certainly I give them credit if they are trying to register voters," she said.
With so few votes separating the candidates in 2000, Gulick knows what to expect if an extra 25 million voters go to the polls. "Either Bush or Kerry is going to win," he said.