Can the Internet draw young people to the voting booth in 2008?

By Joshua Garner
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Internet can empower young people to be the deciding factor in the 2008 presidential election, according to representatives from the Internet’s most popular social networking sites who met at George Washington University in early June.

But in interviews with Catholic News Service, a pair of political science professors from Catholic universities said they were not as sure the Internet would have as great an impact as the panelists indicated and that politicians flooding young people with campaign material on the Internet may be providing too much information too soon.

One of them, Stephen Schneck, chair of the politics department and director of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America, told CNS that increases in voter turnout among the young have been minimal in recent elections and he expects the same in 2008.

But speakers at an event titled “The Future of Political Communication: Connecting With Young Voters” at George Washington said that the Internet has already transformed the media landscape and has become a mainstream tool in politics.

Representatives from the video-sharing Web site YouTube, social networking sites MySpace and Facebook, and Internet-cable provider Comcast said they believe the Internet would play a major role in rallying youthful voters for the 2008 election.

“We’re seeing a massive shift of power because of the way communication is going,” said Joe Trippi, a political campaign adviser and keynote speaker at the event. “How do you provide the sling shots for the army of Davids?”

With Web logs, or blogs, and social networking sites booming in popularity among young people, the speakers believe that politicians are beginning to tap into an often ignored voter base.

“It’s been 36 years since 18-year-olds have had the right to vote,” said Josh Kurtz, political editor of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. “And ever since, we’ve been waiting for a surge of voters to turn out.”

But according to Young Voter Strategies, a Washington-based organization stressing youth involvement in politics, the number of young people voting has been on the rise since the 2004 election.

“For the last two elections, young voter turnout increased,” said Heather Smith, executive director of Young Voter Strategies.

Smith said young voters today are a part of the millennial generation, those born between 1977 and 1997. Fifty million of them will be of voting age in 2008. They’re Internet-savvy, more politically engaged, and they cast 20 million votes in the 2004 election, Smith said.

“They’re defined by things like 9/11 and the Iraq War,” Smith said.

“After decades of decline, it is important for young people to get involved” with politics, said Chris Arteton, dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

But Schneck told CNS he did not expect a big turnout of young voters at the polls in 2008 because “they don’t feel like they have as much of a stake in society as adults do.”

“The Internet is not going to change that in any way,” he said. “I’m not expecting a huge uptick in young people voting.”

With their fast-paced lives, young people tend to be interested in particular issues such as the Iraq War and are drawn to charismatic politicians, but Schneck said he sees none of that drawing them in 2008.

“Young people are very transient,” he said. “They’re not living in one place long enough” to vote.

Unlike previous generations, young people today also are not being educated in how to be civic-minded, Schneck said, and they generally do not become politically engaged until they’re older, paying property taxes and settled down.

“At the end of the day, they’re focused on their lives, getting jobs, finishing school,” said Chris Duncan, chair of the political science department at the Marianist-run University of Dayton in Ohio.

Duncan said that assumptions that the Internet will have a significant impact on politics in 2008 are overly ambitious. So far, he said, candidates lack sharp distinctions from one another and none have spoken on issues that would capture the energy and attention of a 21-year-old.

Politicians efforts to get young voters through social networking sites could be information overload for young people, with too much information too soon, he said.

“It is going to be a question whether students will spend the time to sift through this information or not,” he said.

He added that young people tend not to be as politically engaged as adults, and tend to organize themselves more around social issues.

“Just because they aren’t politically active doesn’t mean they’re not socially active,” he said.


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