- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2000

When I was given the opportunity to ask both Al Gore and George W. Bush one question at the nationally televised presidential debate on Oct. 17 in St. Louis, I chose to probe the candidates about a burning issue that threatens our democratic future: voter apathy among young Americans.

There is no doubt that apathy about the political process is not limited to the young but exists in all age groups. But apathy among America's youth must be addressed vigorously in order to change the perception that an individual's vote does not matter.

Our candidates are fueling a continuous cycle of apathy by failing to discuss the issues concerning young people age 18-24. Any political pundit will tell you that the issues in the 2000 presidential campaign have greater resonance with older voters because the candidates know that older Americans are more likely to vote. The same pundits who make this analysis are often the same ones advising the candidates against spending a lot of time catering to younger voters who are much less likely to vote based on their bad track record. By concentrating their time and issues on those more likely to vote, candidates choose to advance their own political careers while failing to inspire a new generation of voters.

Another cause for apathy is the negative campaigning that bombards us daily. My home state of Missouri, for example, is still considered a swing state so we hear almost nothing positive about the candidates. It does seem, however, that the one promise the candidates all make is to bring honor and integrity back to Washington. Is it any wonder that young people question how any candidate can restore dignity to Washington after being inundated with these negative ads and news stories? Greater effort to run positive campaigns is required to bring young people closer to the political process.

As I mentioned in my question to the two candidates during the third forum held by the Commission on Presidential Debates, as a college professor I hear firsthand about the apathy young Americans feel toward the whole American election process. I have concluded that this apathy among young people has nothing to do with laziness. In the 23 years that I have been teaching I have seen the enthusiasm and hard work exhibited by students, many of whom care passionately about the issues and causes they are involved with. When there is a cause they are interested in, it is amazing what young people are able to accomplish. Why isn't this passion carried through to something as important as the election of the president of the United States?

The answer lies in the very responses Al Gore and George W. Bush gave when I asked them to address "apathy among young people who feel that there are no issues directed to them."

There was no concrete response; instead the candidates digressed into a discussion of philosophy rather than seize the opportunity to speak directly to young people. After listening to their responses, is it any surprise why young people feel disenchanted?

I believe that sustained disenchantment at best may result in the movement of young people toward third party candidates and alternative approaches to our political process. At worst, they will continue to shun the political process. It's not too late; the two major political parties have the opportunity to tap into the passion for change now and over the next four years.

Across the country, Youth Service America, (www.SERVEnet.org), is encouraging young voters to engage in the full cycle of civic participation by committing to volunteering and voting. Messrs. Bush and Gore would be well-served by adopting their example and focusing on our nation's youth.

We must open our democracy to more ideas and remove money as a prerequisite for public service. The election must be free and open to all who wish to run for office and want to have their views discussed. It is wrong that third-party candidates can run for office and yet cannot debate their issues because the two main parties have blocked their inclusion in most debates. If indeed major parties and candidates really trust the "American People" to learn the issues and make informed, intelligent choices, let other candidates be part of the debate process without fear. An open process for candidates will lead to a more open process for young people.

Do the presidential candidates care about young voters? The answer is clearly yes but it is also clear that the candidates continue to speak at them rather than with them.

Another way to draw more young voters into the process is to have a debate forum in which young Americans ask the questions. Out of such a forum would come the candidates' stances on many issues that we otherwise might not have access to. It is true that Social Security, Medicare and prescription-drug benefits are important issues for our future, but most 18-24 year-olds put other topics at the top of their list of important issues. This year, some youth organizations have held youth forums across the country where young people have been able to directly engage candidates for the Senate, the House of Representatives, governor, as well as other state elective offices. These forums should serve as a model for what I hope will occur on a national level.

Young people are an invaluable national resource that if ignored and neglected will only lead to a weakening of our democracy. Everyone agrees that young people are indeed the future; let the politicians now show their commitment to the future by acknowledging and embracing them.

Steven Koosmann is a professor at St. Louis Community College, and attended the Oct. 17 presidential debate.

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