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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Enviro Youth Vote

Air Date: Week of

Many recent voter registration drives have been targeted specifically at young people, also known as "the youth vote". Living on Earth producer Liz Lempert examines the habits of the United States' younger voters, how their influence compares to senior citizens and other voting populations, and how much environmental concerns impact their decisions.


CURWOOD: This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. And according to a preliminary survey of voter registration data, more people under the age of 25 are eligible to go to the polls now than ever before. As Living on Earth's Liz Lempert explains, the act of participation of the young electorate could have a significant impact on the environmental vote.

(Rock music plays)

LEMPERT: They're often referred to disparagingly as slackers, or Generation X: teens and 20-somethings with no identity and no ideals. But in the parking lot of a concert pavilion on the outskirts of Boston, these labels don't seem to fit, especially when it comes to the environment.

SMITH: Hi, I'm Janet Smith from Marshfield. I think we're basically, like, killing our own homes. And we need to, like, save that because what's left after this? I mean we're not going to be able to just magically transport ourselves to a new planet.

HICKEY: My name's Ron Hickey and I'm 23. All the big businesses, if you don't watch them they're just going to love to throw all that stuff in the rivers and whatnot, you know?

ANGELA: My name's Angela, I'm 16 and I'm from Newburyport, Massachusetts. My parents don't recycle, so I have to try to do it sometimes.

LEMPERT: Poll after poll suggests young Americans share a deep-seated concern about pollution and over-use of the planet's resources. One survey conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles found that 84% of college freshmen think the government is not doing enough to protect the environment. According to pollster Jeffrey Pollack, although economic and personal security are young peoples' top concerns...

POLLACK: On a second level, once we get past crime and the economy, the environment is right up there. It's as important to young people in many places as education, one of the most important issues.

LEMPERT: This fact is not lost on environmental activists. In May the Sierra Club commissioned a poll of young voters to find out whether their green views translate into green votes. In the survey 18 to 24 year olds were questioned about a hypothetical candidate for Congress. This candidate was a sort of environmental Neanderthal who received money from oil and logging companies, voted to close national parks, clear-cut national forests, and open up Alaska wilderness to drilling. Over 75% of those polled expressed serious doubts about the candidate. Adam Werbach is president of the Sierra Club, and at age 24 a young voter himself.

WERBACH: What we found, which was surprising to us, was that the environment has become such a norm with young voters, more than any other age group, that if a representative actually votes against the environment, that raises more character doubts in young voters' minds than any other single issue. More than crime, more than the deficit, more than the national debt.

LEMPERT: The problem is, whether it's due to cynicism, apathy, or a combination of both, most young people don't vote. In 1992, only 43% of 18 to 24 year olds voted, far below voter turnout in the rest of the electorate. Senior citizens in contrast voted at a rate of 70%. Therese Helitzer says she was once turned off by politics herself.

HELITZER: When I was in college I didn't really respect the democratic process because I felt, like, you know, oh, well my vote really doesn't matter anyway, and look at all this money and how much it costs to run for office. This democratic process seemed really on another level and not really affecting my life.

LEMPERT: Then she realized that elected officials make decisions that impact the issues she cares about. Now 25, Therese Helitzer is president of Campus Green Vote, a national organization trying to move students from the recycling bin to the ballot box. Campus Green Vote is only one of several organizations hoping to increase youth voter registration this year.

(A man shouts: "Register to vote! Rock the vote! Who would like to rock with us today? You can do it right here...")

LEMPERT: A pioneer in the voting is cool campaign is MTV, the rock video music channel. In a concrete plaza on campus, students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst flock around MTV's choose or lose bus, listening to rock music, watching music videos, and filing out voter registration forms.

(Man: "Register to vote today, folks! Allow yourselves to have the opportunity to go to the polls rockin'!")

LEMPERT: MTV, Campus Green Vote, and a coalition of other youth groups have registered close to three quarters of a million young people since January. This year's youth turnout could also be influenced by a 1993 Federal law. Nicknamed "motor voter," it requires states to offer voter registration to people when they apply for driver's licenses. So far, it seems young people benefit the most from easier registration. One recent poll reports that 40% of the 11 million people brought onto the rolls by the law have been under the age of 29. If the efforts of MTV and Campus Green Vote succeed, and if those people registering under motor voter turn up at the polls on November 5th, young voters could have a dramatic effect on the American political landscape. Richard Tao is executive director of Third Millennium, a lobbying group for people in their 20s and 30s.

TAO: Imagine if you woke up on November 6th, the day after the election, and you saw that young people and senior citizens had voted at the same rate. They both, let's say, voted at a rate of 70%. Suddenly politicians would be tripping over each other to figure out how to please young people. They'd be doing everything they could to more aggressively protect the environment. Overnight you would transform the political process.

(Rock music plays)

LEMPERT: The 43 million potential voters under age 30 and largely uncommitted in their party affiliations could be a potential gold mine for politicians and for the environmental movement. For Living on Earth, this is Liz Lempert in Boston.



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