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Rock the vote?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 5, 2010 - In 2008, 51 percent of young people showed up to vote, according to the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE. Among them were Kurseaan Muhammad and Brett Dinkins, though both voted for different candidates. But their reasons for voting in their first election were similar -- they were 18 and there was a buzz in the air around the election.

Muhammad voted for Obama. Dinkins voted for McCain. Both remember what it was like.

"I felt like, just to be a part of it was kind of life-changing, you could say," Muhammad says.

For Dinkins, being on a college campus for the first time and being challenged about his views made him work harder to understand what was going on.

"It was a great first year to get involved," he says.

Now, Muhammad is a sophomore at Harris-Stowe State University and plans on transferring to the University of Missouri, Columbia, to pursue pre-med. Dinkins is a junior at MU, studying communications and political science.

And both do plan to vote in the upcoming midterm elections.

But will the other young people who showed up in force two years ago do the same? What about those young people now able to vote for the first time? Probably not, or at least not with the same numbers. Peter Levine, executive director with CIRCLE, expects the youth vote to be at or slightly above 2006 midterm levels of about 25 percent.

"The reason it might be a little bit better is because a whole bunch of people had an experience voting in 2008 that might motivate them," he says.

But we shouldn't be too quick to cast young voters as belonging to the same mold, either, he says. According to polling by CIRCLE, they're vastly different from each other, from the generations before them, and in many cases, from the political parties courting their votes.

Buzz Kill

When the St. Louis Beacon contacted a handful of seniors in high school, their responses were quite similar, though their political preferences weren't.

Are you registered? they were asked.

"Not yet. But I'm going to," said a senior at Kirkwood High School, who said she tends toward Republican.

"No. I am planning on registering, but I haven't yet," said a senior at Nerinx Hall High School, who also considers herself Republican.

Merlin Bell, a senior at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, also hadn't registered when the Beacon spoke with him.

"I am planning on registering to vote as soon as possible," said Bell, who usually agrees with Democrats but isn't tied to the party. "I really feel that my vote will count as well as other young adults, and also I feel like if you have a right to vote, I think you should vote as soon as possible."

Voting was also something that the Kirkwood High School senior said she felt like she had to do as "part of your role as a citizen." But, at least at the time, neither she nor Bell had done much research on the issues they'd be voting on in this midterm election.

Another young woman, a freshman at Washington University who leans Democatic, was registered to vote, but wasn't planning on voting "because I know nothing about the election and my vote wouldn't be well-informed."

Voting for the first time in a presidential election and voting in a midterm, where issues and races are more local, are certainly different experiences. And midterm turnout is traditionally lower, regardless of voter age

This time around, Levine says, young Democrats who showed up for Obama in 2008 are "all discouraged, whether they should be or not."

Keaton Hanson, a sophomore at Webster University, is feeling some of that. He voted for Obama in his first presidential election two years ago. This year, the buzz isn't really there.

"I still believe in the same things," he says, "and you can see buzz kind of shifting to the other side, to the right-hand side, people getting excited about changing things the way they want them."

Indeed, young conservatives could be the wild card in the mid-terms, Levine says. While they largely sat 2008 out, this year, that could change.

Getting Out The Vote

At MU, where Dinkins is the co-chair of the College Republicans, momentum seems to be building right now, he says.

"We're seeing a completely different atmosphere than what we saw just two years ago. It was very big and very active in 2008, but now it's very big and very active going the completely opposite way," he says. "It's interesting being on the same campus and seeing that happen."

Membership and the response to the College Republicans are much better, he says. "Now people are actively seeking us out."

And unlike in 2008, Dinkins isn't seeing as much momentum among young Democrats -- some of whom agree.

"It's definitely a different kind of election," says Stacy Vojta, president of the St. Louis University College Democrats. 2008 was her first election. "People felt so strongly about Obama and what he stood for."

During midterms, it's harder to get people fired up.

"This is about an agenda now," she says. "It's a little bit more difficult to get that point across."

At SLU, Vojta sees people getting disillusioned with the party system in general and how things work in Washington. Also, at least for college students, she says, it's hard to get them motivated when they're not from the area and haven't grown up with the local candidates or issues.

Overall, though, she says, it doesn't seem like the campus has more conservatives; it's just more people feeling apathetic.

"Obviously Obama gave us a reason to vote."

Now, she says, Democrats need to do the same, and there are plenty of things to be concerned about, including jobs and the economy.

Those same issues are galvanizing young conservatives, says Dinkins, who have been inspired by the Tea Party movement, but in a way that might be different than for older people.

"My generation is much more concerned with economic principles and the principles of limited government than they are with the social issues that you see a lot of older generation, baby-boomer generation Republicans concerned with."

And that's exactly what Levine with CIRCLE is seeing, too. While young Democrats and liberals are chiefly concerned with social issues, young conservatives don't seem to be.

"I'm pretty sure I can say accurately that there's really a small, a very small, young social issues affirmative group," Levine says. "Our polling has found remarkably high levels of what I would call tolerance among young people, even majorities of evangelical Christians and self-described conservatives are in favor of various gay rights."

They might not be in favor of gay marriage, he says, but they're not all worked up against it. Young conservatives seem to be more libertarian, he says, they don't like big government and don't want high taxes.

"I think it's pretty significant, and I think the older social conservative leaders know it."

Dinkins agrees. "There's a real disconnect, I think, between my generation and the baby boomer generation within our party," he says.

The Voting Advantage

In a sea of unmotivated younger voters -- those with only vague intentions of registering and little knowledge of the issues or candidates -- Kevin Flannery may be an anomaly.

"I like voting," says the Lake Saint Louis native and junior at Georgetown University who voted for the first time in 2008. "It's one of my favorite things to do. I like to feel like I can have an impact."

The Beacon first caught up with Flannery, who is studying ethics and American government, when he voted for the first time in the 2008 primaries.

Back then, we asked him this: Are your friends, family members voting? "I don't think my friends are ... because they don't know about the issues and feel like that would be spitting on democracy if they came out and voted if they didn't know things. It's good to vote, but it's good to know things, too."

Now, like then, Flannery knows the issues at stake in the election, and perhaps his reasoning for voting gives the apathetic voter a reason to vote.

"It justifies any complaining that I can do. If I don't vote, how can I complain?"

Maggie Hallam, a Kirkwood High School senior, Kelsey E. Stoskopf, a senior at Parkway South High School, and Beacon Intern Danny Steinberg contributed to this report.

Kristen Hare

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