Sunday, May 25, 2008

Election excitement energizing younger voters

Inspired by a fierce interest in the presidential election, a gasping economy and the ongoing Iraq war, a growing number of East Bay young people see voting and politics as a path to change.

Nearly half the 58,000 new registrants in Contra Costa and Alameda counties since Sept. 1 are younger than 30, a Times analysis of voter registration data showed. Sixteen percent of all East Bay registered voters fall into this age category.

"Young voters' lot in life is tough right now," said California Young Democrats President Rocky Fernandez, citing the poor economy, college debt, less access to health insurance and the war. "But our generation is still hopeful. We see government as a tool for good, and we think we can have an effect at the polls."

The need to "get involved and have an impact on our future is becoming incredibly real and incredibly palpable," said East Bay Young Democrats President Frieda Glantz, a 27-year-old Piedmont consultant for a nonprofit organization.

The trend is largely helping Democrats.

Almost 60 percent of new East Bay registrants of all ages were Democrats, a shift that helped flip Livermore, Moraga, Pleasanton and San Ramon from Republican to Democratic registration advantage since September.

Republicans claimed 11 percent of all new registrants, and about a quarter were independents.

They may not match Democrats' numbers, but young East Bay conservatives are on the scene, said St. Mary's AdvertisementCollege Republicans President Laura Gibble.

Her club members are walking precincts for local GOP candidates and registering students to vote.

They also have hosted popular debates on campus in the past year with their counterparts in the college Democratic club.

"We had 80 people show up for our Iraq war debate and we were thrilled. We were used to seeing eight or 10 people," Gibble, 21, said. "It's true. The Democrats have really been rallying students and there's a rush and thrill of being involved that's hooking them. 'Yay, yay, change!' But change does not mean progress."

The burgeoning involvement in politics among East Bay young people follows a national trend.

In 2004 and 2006 across the nation, 18- to 29-year-old voters showed up at the polls in higher numbers than ever, posting the largest gains of any age group, according to the Maryland-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

"After steady declines in youth electoral participation since 1972 — save for a one-time surge in 1992 — the last two election cycles saw increases in the young voter turnout rate, signaling a more engaged young adult population," according to the center's February report on young voter trends.

Young people have been a key factor in several of the 2008 presidential primaries, largely to the benefit of Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Youth turnout in the 2004 Iowa caucuses tripled in 2008 and nearly tripled in the New Hampshire primaries, the center found.

They are voting because campaigns and grass-roots organizations are reaching out to them, said center senior research associate Emily Kirby.

Candidates and political groups are using Facebook and other social network sites, MTV and YouTube. Peer-to-peer contact is the most effective tactic, Kirby said.

"In the past, young people were cut off because conventional wisdom says, 'They don't vote anyway,'" Kirby said. "Today, the campaigns hire paid staff to work as youth outreach directors."

Former Lamorinda Democratic Club President Terry Leach was ahead of the curve. She pushed her group six years ago to appoint a youth outreach coordinator. The club offers scholarships, waives all meeting fees for students and helps the St. Mary's College Democratic Club.

"That whole maxim about you can't rely on young voters, well, if you say something often enough because you think it's true, you'll lose elections when it's no longer true," Leach said.

"There's a movement happening here."

At 19, political science college student Rebecca Barrett thought she was too young to do little more than volunteer for a campaign.

But another young party activist encouraged her and today, the young Obama fan from Concord is running for a seat on the Contra Costa Democratic Party Central Committee and serving as the co-youth outreach coordinator for the Lamorinda Democrats.

"The more I thought about it, I realized that the party really does need people our age in leadership positions, what with everything going on with education cuts and other policy decisions that affect us," Barrett said.

"Young people do care about politics and a lot of people have been turned on by this election."

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