High School Kids Could Help Swell ’04 Turnout — Really

Posted June 2, 2004 at 4:21pm

The high partisanship of this fall’s campaigns will almost certainly boost voter turnout this year, at least in battleground states. But one of the biggest national efforts to spur turnout is actually the most idealistic and nonpartisan. It’s run by high school kids who are pledging to get 25 million voters to the polls.

Freedom’s Answer, organized by Washington political operatives Doug Bailey and Mike McCurry, is in the process of recruiting 2.5 million students from 10,000 high schools, each committed to get 10 voters to the polls. [IMGCAP(1)]

“We’re not saying we’re going to turn out 25 million new voters,” Bailey said in an interview. “But if two or three million are people who wouldn’t have voted otherwise, turnout will be the largest in American history.”

Actually, only turnout explosion would allow 2004 to match records set in the 1960s, when more than 60 percent of eligible voters turned out.

But even Curtis Gans — who for years has been lamenting the long-term decline in turnout as director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate — expects turnout to rise in 2004.

If that happens, it would mark a dramatic reversal. Only in 1992, when turnout rose to 58 percent, has the post-1960s decline seen a major uptick. Turnout fell to its lowest point — 51.5 percent — in 1996, before increasing only slightly, to 54.3 percent, in 2000, largely due to partisan grassroots efforts mounted by the parties — especially, the GOP — in battleground states.

This year, boosting turnout — through canvassing, identifying and registering likely voters, staying in touch with them and delivering them to the polls — is a top priority for both Republicans and Democrats.

President Bush’s campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, told me that the GOP is two-thirds the way toward registering 3 million new Republican voters and has identified 500,000 volunteers whom it will put through a turnout “test drive” June 9-19.

On the Democratic side, Americans Coming Together, hopes to raise $95 million from financier George Soros and other anti-Bush militants and to assemble 25,000 paid organizers and 200,000 volunteers in 17 battleground states.

The purpose of these efforts is obviously to win a bitterly-fought election.

By contrast, the purpose of Freedom’s Answer, Bailey told me, is “empowerment of young people — a group that’s constantly told that politics stinks and turns out in the lowest numbers of any age group.”

In 2000, turnout among 18-25 year-olds was only 28.7 percent. Among those over 65, it was 66.3 percent and among 55-64 year-olds, it was 63.2 percent.

“There’s a vicious cycle at work,” Bailey said. “Politicians don’t listen to young people because they don’t vote and young people don’t vote partly because they think politicians don’t listen to them. We’re out to break that cycle.”

Even though most high school students are too young to vote, Bailey and McCurry hope that seniors will do so when they turn 18 — and they hope that signing up adults to vote will engender a lasting interest in politics.

As matters stand, however, students “don’t get taught much civics in the schools any more,” Bailey said. “Well over 50 percent come from homes with no voting parent — the best indicator of whether someone will become a voter.” As a result, Bailey said, “their views of politics and the process come mostly from the pop culture, which offers mostly ridicule.”

Bailey, once a GOP consultant and later founder of The Hotline, the daily bible for political junkies, and McCurry, President Clinton’s former press secretary, originally founded a non-profit called Youth e-Vote in the summer of 2001.

“Then Sept. 11 happened and suddenly there was a new motivator,” Bailey said. “‘Freedom’s Answer’ is a response to Sept. 11 and kids see it that way.”

Freedom’s Answer has support from most major youth organizations, including Boys and Girls State and Nation; Future Farmers of America; the YMCA; the 4-H Council; Junior ROTC; and the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership organization.

It also has backing from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of School Boards, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, as well as AARP, the American Bar Association and dozens of other civic groups.

It receives a budget of $1.5 million per election cycle from various foundations and corporations, plus the Public Affairs Council.

In 2002, students organized in 2,500 high schools. Youth leaders who were involved in the effort wrote an inspiring book that tagged the age cohort that follows “Gen X” and “Gen Y” as “the Sept. 11 Generation.”

So, if young people do get active, which party will benefit?

A recent Harvard University study showed that Democrat John Kerry holds a 10-point lead over President Bush among college students, but that support is soft and represents a reversal from last October, when 58 percent favored Bush.

“This is a strictly non-partisan effort,” said Bailey. “I think the party that seizes the opportunity and goes after young people will get them.”