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It's no secret that Americans are skeptical and apathetic toward politics. But this wasn't always the case. In the 19th century, for example, politics was the national pastime, and election days could bring a festive atmosphere to a small town. A return to that golden age of political involvement may seem far off, but the actions of Youth Vote '96 are at least helping to put us on the right track.
Youth Vote '96 is a nation-wide umbrella organization whose goal is to increase voter turnout among young people between 18 and 24 years of age. Although comprised of 17 different groups, Youth Vote is mainly supported by various state Public Interest Research Groups, organizations founded by Ralph Nader to promote awareness among American consumer-citizens; Campus Green Vote, which seeks to raise awareness of environmental issues; and Rock the Vote, an organization which works with the entertainment industry to mobilize young people.
With the help of the Institute of Politics, Youth Vote will hold a three-day conference at Harvard (February 16-18) to train 600 campus and youth leaders in techniques they can use to register voters and increase political awareness in their communities. These leaders represent a wide range of organizations, from student governments to public service groups.
We would like to lend our full-fledged support to Youth Vote, which seems a solid, well-thought-out attempt to combat voter apathy in the United States. And voter apathy is certainly a problem. According to conference organizer Ivan Frishberg, who is also higher education advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the overall voter turnout in the 1992 presidential election was 63.1 percent, and the turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds was only 43 percent. Turnouts for non-presidential elections are usually much lower.
There are indicators, however, that America may be trending towards greater political involvement. While low in absolute terms, the turnouts for the 1992 election were greater by several percentage points than those for 1988. And six million citizens were registered last year by the motor-voter campaign, 40 percent of whomwere in the 18- to 24-year-old range.
But simply registering people does not ensure that they will turn out to vote, nor does it ensure that they will be capable of voting in an informed manner. Therefore, we hope that the Youth Vote conference will succeed in tackling the difficult task of teaching its participants to effectively bring the issues back to their communities. Voter registration is one thing, but creating a well-informed citizenry is entirely different.
And so we would like to urge all members of the Harvard community, even those who have never heard of Youth Vote '96, to take a more active role in politics. Perhaps politics will never again stir popular excitement as it did when the country was young, but we can certainly work to make it an integral part of Americans' lives.
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