WASHINGTON – America's global standing, Social Security (search) solvency and gay marriage (search) rights sound like typical election year issues, but young voters had a few twists tailored to their own concerns when they recently pressed the presidential candidates on these issues.
"Do you believe executing minors is a good policy and if not, what will you do to change the law?"
"The [Higher Education Act] provision disqualifies students with drug convictions from receiving financial aid. Do you feel it's necessary to deny financial aid to [those] who already paid for their crime?"
"Do you believe that teaching abstinence alone is enough to save our children from teen pregnancy and spreading disease?"
Those are just a few of the 12 questions asked by people 18 through 30 for Youth Debate 2004 (search) — sponsored in part by the New Voters Project (search), a youth get-out-the-vote and election information effort. Questions were chosen from thousands of e-mails written by young people across the country.
"For this debate, we specifically focused on previously unanswered questions," said Anthony Tedesco, founder of the Presidential Youth Debates (search), which launched during the 1992 election, and is part of Youth Debate.
Tedesco said the unusual questions resonate with voters who previously have felt left out of the political dialogue. "I think it's a big hook for the young voter."
Republican President George Bush (search), Democrat John Kerry (search) and independent Ralph Nader (search) all answered the questions in written form and their responses were posted Tuesday on Newvotersproject.com. The candidates offered few surprises in their answers to questions relating to jobs, education, war and gay marriage.
"Our Social Security system must adapt to these new realities if it is to remain strong in the 21st century. I favor the establishment of voluntary personal accounts for younger workers," Bush wrote in response to a question about saving Social Security.
"Today, there is still a powerful yearning around the world for an America that listens and leads again. An America respected, and not just feared," Kerry replied, answering a question about how to restore America's reputation across the globe.
While Nader has been hard to spot on the campaign trail, his responses seemed to inject some punch into the online forum.
"Coerced military service amounts to slavery, and America can stop the talk of a draft with a dual corporate and military exit from Iraq," Nader said, adding his opposition to "stop-loss" orders, which prevent active duty soldiers from leaving the service when their committed time is up.
On the death penalty, Kerry said that overall it should be used only on terrorists. Nader said he opposes the death penalty altogether. Bush said he stands by federal law that does not allow for the execution of minors under 18.
All three men agreed the provision in the Higher Education Act (search) that prevented students with drug convictions from receiving federal aid is discriminatory.
Reserving the Right to Remain Silent
Bush did not answer a question about whether politicians should always be rebuked as "flip-flopping" when they change their opinions and whether he ever had an "honest change of opinion" on a topic of national importance.
Nader chose to answer, however. "When I first arrived in Washington, D.C., one of my first meals was a hot dog," he said. "After I discovered what were in hot dogs, I never ate another one. I changed my mind. When we get new facts or new information, it is foolish to continue on course as if the new information did not exist."
Adam Alexander, a spokesman for the New Voters Project in Washington, D.C., said the forum allowed the candidates to speak to these voters directly at a time when young people are registering to vote in droves.
"You're seeing the candidates and the parties and the campaigns themselves focusing on these people," he said. "They're not just paying lip service."
Nathan Herbst, a 25-year-old electronic technician and full-time graduate student in West St. Paul, Minn., who asked the question about Social Security, said he wonders if the system will be around when he retires.
"I would say Bush impressed me the most," with his answer, mostly because the president touched on permitting separate savings accounts. He added that he thinks he is going to vote for Bush on Nov. 2.
Herbst said he is happy he got involved with Youth Debate 2004 and liked what he saw among the answers.
"I was impressed with how in-depth each candidate went," he said.
The New Voters Project, which is sponsored by the State Public Interest Research Groups and George Washington University, has helped to register over 300,000 18- to 24-year-olds, according to Alexander, mostly in battleground states.
He and others say the close 2000 election, combined with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being fought by men and women largely in their peer group, has engaged this demographic despite disappointing turnout in recent years.
"I think people are going to be surprised," said Shane Walker, the founder of TUN (search), a college-run television network based at Ball State University. "These kids are very politically savvy these days."
Youth voters, identified as 18- to 30-year-olds, accounted for less than 4 percent of the entire voting population in 2000, a lower turnout than anyone had expected. But according to a Sept. 30 Pew Research poll, 58 percent of these Americans are registered to vote this year and 85 percent of those registered said they planned to vote. Early polling in September showed Bush and Kerry winning in different surveys.
Despite the question-and-answer session, the New Voters Project is not without controversy. Alison Aikele, a spokeswoman for the National College Republicans (search), said the CRs had been in touch with the New Voters Project until recently, when Rock the Vote! (search), one of the project's sponsors, e-mailed 640,000 people fake draft cards and suggested their fate would be in the military if Bush won the election.
Aikele added that Youth Debate 2004's lead moderator is Farai Chideya (search), whose blog "Pop and Politics," features her own anti-Bush commentary. The blog is linked to the New Voters Project Web site, indicating a bias in the forum.
"What's evident is they are using the face of a nonpartisan organization to draft votes for the liberal left," she said. Aikele said the CRs could live with that. They have recruited 47,000 active volunteers on college campuses since the semester began this fall.
"The difference is we've been actually mobilizing people in the grassroots," Aikele said.
Alexander said his group has been vigilantly keeping the debate and the New Voters' Project nonpartisan, despite criticisms that Rock the Vote!, the State PIRGs (search) and partner Declare Yourself (search) have been derided as Democratic vote-getting operations. He insists that youth voters know the difference, too.
"We don't do any campaigning, we have no hidden agenda, no issue advocacy," he said. "But we were able to establish a forum for these young people to ask questions. The televised debates are so tightly controlled and scripted. We're simply trying to increase young voter turnout in this election."