Thursday, October 2, 2003

Young voters missing at polls

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For Cincinnati's young voters, the 2003 election is arguably one of the most important in a generation.

A young crop of City Council candidates (median age: 38) and even younger class of incumbents (median age: 35) represents a legitimate youth movement in city politics as term limits have gradually eliminated more-experienced candidates from the field.

Election Guide 2003 provides an early look at the Nov. 4 vote with help on getting you registered, lists of area candidates and the latest campaign news. And there's more to come, including candidate profiles - as we get closer to Election Day.
And yet if past trends continue - and there's no reason to believe they won't - young voters will be all but a non-factor in the 2003 election.

Richard Florida's book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has put the issues of young, creative professionals on the city's front burner. The city's population loss - led by young professionals migrating to more vibrant cities - is seen as an underlying cause of every city problem from crime to housing to taxes.

The numbers are indisputable: young people vote less often than middle-aged or older people.

In Hamilton County, 57.1 percent of registered voters 18-35 have voted at least once since the 2000 presidential election, compared to 77.8 percent for the next age group, registered voters 36-55.

But the drop-off in local elections is substantial: 43.3 percent of those young voters who did vote in the last presidential election haven't seen the inside of a voting booth since 2000. For middle-aged voters, that off-year drop-off was 24.9 percent.

"Our politicians never talk to them, and so they don't vote. They don't vote, so the politicians never talk to them. It's a vicious cycle," said Terry Grundy, a founder of the New Urbanists, a group of civic leaders and young professionals who hope to attract younger, middle-class people back to the central cities.

Grundy also teaches a class on urban lobbying at the University of Cincinnati, and has watched his classes become increasingly cynical about government.

"They very much believe that government is bought by special interests. If young people feel it's fixed, and it they think there's nothing they can do about it, that's the truly alarming thing."

National experts on voting behavior say they're confounded by the phenomenon. "Nobody knows what's going on here," said Daniel M. Shea, an associate professor of political science at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

Still, there are some theories:

• Notwithstanding the Internet, television remains the primary source for news for young people. And television does a poor job covering local campaigns - especially one in which 26 Cincinnati City Council candidates are competing for attention.

• Young people are more transient. Most college students who live in the city are from the suburbs or beyond. Afterward, a young professional can move two or three times before settling down.

• Younger people are less likely to own a home - and therefore pay property taxes or worry about home values - than their middle-aged counterparts. They're also not old enough to have children in the schools.

Sara Bennett, a 31-year-old writer who lives in Westwood, admits that she hasn't paid much attention to city politics since moving to the area with her husband five years ago.

"We've only owned our house for almost two years now. We're only now starting to get settled," she said. "Local elections don't seem to have much of a bearing on our lives until you own property and have a real stake in your community."

Some of the issues she cares about are the same as any voter: safe neighborhoods, good schools, a vibrant city. But she also wants to see a neighborhood business district that caters to a younger, hipper clientele with bookstores, shops and trendy pubs.

"We don't have a Starbucks. We don't even have a coffee shop. We have to drive up Harrison Avenue to Cheviot to get a cup of coffee," she said.

And Article XII of the city's charter - which prohibits City Council from passing an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting homosexuals - is almost a litmus-test issue with young voters like Bennett.

"I can't imagine how the city can have that kind of bias against gays and lesbians in this day and age. I just don't understand it. It seems so backward," she said.

It's not that young people are aloof and disconnected. In many ways, they're more active and involved socially than previous generations.

Take Zachary Zitko, a 29-year-old business consultant who lives in Oakley. He was student body president at the University of Cincinnati and is a member of Give Back Cincinnati, a group of young professionals who volunteer their time for community projects.

"I think we grew up around a lot of negative stereotypes of politicians. Take Bill Clinton. What's the first thing people think about when you say Bill Clinton?" he said.

Young people shun organized politics for the same reasons they shun organized religion. They value independent thinking and don't have the time to commit to something that doesn't produce immediate results, Zitko said.

"People don't want to be labeled," Zitko said. "Once you label yourself as a Democrat or a Republican, all the sudden all these other stereotypes come in. People assume that because you favor A and B, you also support C."

Compared to previous generations, young people may also have lost faith in the idea that government can change peoples' lives.

"Young people who are interested in changing the world don't do it through politics any more. They volunteer at the Drop Inn Center, or join Americorps. The rewards for that are much more proximate," said Gene Beaupre, a political science instructor at Xavier University. "There has not been an issue that has touched young voters since the Vietnam issue did. Everybody knew somebody who went to Vietnam or was killed in Vietnam."

A generation ago, the anti-war message of Jerry Springer helped him to break on to City Council at age 27. He played the guitar and sang songs on Mount Adams - which in the early '70s was emerging as a hot spot for young adults in much the same way that Main Street is now - and led a campaign to lower the voting age in Ohio to 19.

In 2001, 27-year-old John Cranley won election to City Council by a similar route. Like Springer, he had first run for Congress against an entrenched Republican incumbent and lost. During his 2000 congressional campaign, Cranley was the subject of an MTV documentary in which he confessed the need to "puke" frequently because of the stress of the campaign.

This year's political spring chicken is Nick Spencer, a 25-year-old Charterite whose campaign grew out of a young professional movement called Cincinnati Tomorrow.

And he's come out swinging on an issue that would directly affect thousands of young people every weekend: the proposal by Cranley and Mayor Charlie Luken to spend $100,000 on a developer to help build the Main Street Entertainment District.

Like most young candidates, he also supports the repeal of Article XII.

"Young people have always been about civil rights. That's not something unique to this generation. We're still young enough that we haven't stopped believing that the world should be fair," Spencer said.

Civil rights activist Damon Lynch III, a 43-year-old independent candidate, is running on a three-part message: neighborhood development, police reform and standing up for poor and working-class people. But his campaign is also attempting to craft that message differently to put a more youthful stamp on it.

"We brought in a group of young people who immediately explained to me everything that was uncool about what we were doing," said Malia Lazu, a 26-year-old Boston-based political consultant to the Lynch campaign. "They want to create their own fliers and own T-shirts - things that will be more young-people-friendly."

Registering young voters is a big part of many council campaigns.

Independent Brian Crum Garry, 38, has a "Rap the Vote" effort to mobilize what he calls "hip-hop voters." And 32-year-old Alicia Reece's "Jam the Vote" campaign goes a step further by following up to give newly registered voters transportation to the polls.

Once there, the candidates hope, young voters will vote for them.

Yet even Spencer acknowledges that even if he captures 100 percent of the youth vote, that isn't enough to get elected.

"You can't win simply talking to young people and about young people. You have to expand your message," he said. "It's hard to explain to people sometimes why drawing young people to the city is so important. I ask older voters: don't you want your grandchildren to stay in the city once they graduate from college? Because we're losing them to other cities."


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