VERONA, Wis. – They've gotten pregnant less often than teens of recent decades, are less likely to smoke or do illegal drugs, and have an interest in volunteering and public service. Now signs are cropping up that the nation's youngest young adults are bucking another trend: They're taking an interest in voting.
"It's important to us. What happens in this election is going to affect our generation," says 18-year-old Katie Brew, who filled out a registration form shortly before graduating from Verona High School, just outside Madison.
About to head to the University of Nebraska for her freshman year, Brew is most worried about the potential for a draft. Others say the threat of terrorism and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have motivated them to get involved.
"We've been through things like 9-11 and the war on Iraq — all that junk. So we want to have a say," says 18-year-old Mia Georgeson, another newly registered voter from Verona High who's about to join the National Guard Army band as a percussionist.
Recent surveys of youth — most often college students — have provided conflicting data about the level of interest in the upcoming presidential election.
Still, several experts who track youth movements believe change is afoot, particularly among "millennials," young adults born after 1981 who are coming of age in the new millennium. Now no older than 22, they represent millions of potential new voters.
Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited (search), says the election has been coming up frequently — and spontaneously — during his talks with young people who serve as advisers for the Illinois-based market research company.
"I haven't seen this much interest since 1992," Wood says, referring to the first presidential election Bill Clinton won. It was the only presidential race since 1972, when the voting age was dropped to 18, in which turnout among the youngest voters topped 50 percent.
He agrees that the war in Iraq — and how it will affect their lives — is causing many teens to take notice. He also credits the many voting campaigns that target young people, including one spearheaded by MTV.
Still others say teachers have helped inspired them.
That was the case for Dan Blessing, a recent high school graduate in Philadelphia who took action after a teacher explained how young people have been increasingly less likely to vote.
"It really did hit me then," says Blessing, who registered via an education program called Student Voices. He and fellow students at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts then had a pizza party to persuade their peers to do the same.
In Wisconsin alone, the nonpartisan New Voters Project has already registered more than 8,000 teens, including Brew, Georgeson and dozens of other graduating seniors at Verona High School.
Caught during their final assembly, they heard an enthusiastic pitch from 23-year-old Jessy Tolkan, the New Voters Project's Wisconsin coordinator.
"Before you go off into the world as high school graduates, you can do one really critical, important thing — you can register to vote!" Tolkan shouted.
The suggestion drew just a single "Woo!" from the back of the auditorium — hardly a rousing response.
But in a matter of minutes, nearly half of the 310 Verona seniors registered and filled out cards that say "YES! I pledge to vote on Nov. 2, 2004." They also provided e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers so they could be reminded to vote this fall.
Several other students said they'd already registered.
"It's all part of a rising political tide," says Scott Beale, a 28-year-old who interviewed hundreds of young people for his book "Millennial Manifesto," a look at youth interest in politics, activism and voting.
A graduate student studying public administration at the University of Delaware, Beale points to youth-driven movements aimed at lowering the voting age in several states.
He also notes that more young people are running for public office. They include 26-year-old Samara Barend, a former campaign aide to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton who is running for Congress in New York.
But others wonder if all the talk about voting will really equate to votes.
"I'm, at once, hopeful and skeptical," says Ganesh Sitaraman, a 21-year-old Harvard University graduate who co-wrote the book "Invisible Citizens: Youth Politics After September 11" and worries that the many young people who are registering won't actually vote.
Bill Strauss, a generational expert who coined the term "millennial," believes there will be pockets of increased participation in this election — but that the full effect of the youngest generation's political influence won't be felt until 2012, when they'll be pushing 30 and more invested in the economy.
Some young people are clearly having trouble getting motivated — among them Jake Gleason, a Verona student who didn't register to vote, even when the form and a pen were handed to him.
"Honestly, I'm just too lazy to fill it out," the 18-year-old said after the assembly. "I got halfway through and I just didn't feel like finishing it."