Age-Appropriate Activism

October 22, 2004 | By Vikki Ortiz

Becca Ruidl may have to wait another two birthdays before she’ll be old enough to vote in an election, but that hasn’t stopped the high school junior from visiting both presidential candidates’ Web sites, readingabout campaign issues in CosmoGIRL and pinning a Rock the Vote buttonon her Gap backpack.

At home, she said, “I’m the youngest of four, and everyone can vote but me, so when theyhave political discussions, I don’t want to just sit there.”

Ruidl’searly affinity for politics demonstrates an interesting trend amid theflood of efforts to reach 18- to 24-year-old voters.

Kidswho won’t be able to cast a ballot for years are wearing “Vote or Die” T-shirts, joining student political groups and discussing politics overtheir lunchboxes. At the same time, department stores are stockingvote-oriented clothing in preteen sizes.

CosmoGIRL,whose readers average 16 years old, has hired a politicalcorrespondent. And established get-out-the-young-vote organizationssuch as Rock the Vote are learning to appeal to the pre-18 crowd.

It’s not unusual for kids to want what they can’t have. And it’s alsonothing new for children to take on the political views of theirparents. But generational experts say the political interest kids areexhibiting this year may be a sign of something bigger: that theupcoming generation is becoming the most politically active group tocome of age in decades.

“I’ve just beenabsolutely blown away,” said Colleen Taylor, the politicalcorrespondent who began writing columns in May for CosmoGIRL. Taylorsaid she has received hundreds of political e-mails from girls acrossthe country, with at least half of those girls identifying themselvesas younger than 18.

“It’s surprising me how informed they really are,” Taylor said.

Again and again this election season, young people have been told it’s cool to vote, no matter who you’re supporting.

In January, MTV launched its “Choose or Lose 2004” campaign with a goal ofmobilizing more young adults between the ages of 18 and 30. Dozens oftimes a day, the channel—working with a coalition of youth voteorganizations—thrusts “get out and vote” messages at its viewers. Inone such special, rapper and producer Sean “P.Diddy” Combs givesstep-by-step instructions on how to cast a ballot. In another, popprincess Christina Aguilera journeys back to her hometown to talkpolitics.

Potential young voters also arebeing encouraged to think about politics at Rock the Vote concerts, inSubway sandwich commercials and even through independent companies selling “Vote” underwear.

The groupsbehind the initiatives hope 20 million young voters will head to thepolls in November—2 million more than the number of 18- to30-year-olds who voted in the 2000 presidential election. But evenbefore election day arrives, some organizers say they’ve beenpleasantly surprised by the response from young people not yet in thetarget age bracket.

“This year, youngpeople see what their older brothers and sisters do, and they say,‘Hey, I want to get involved in this, too,’” said Jay Streol,communications director for Rock the Vote.

MeganBlaine, a 17-year-old student at Pius XI High School, is one of thosestudents. She won’t be voting in this election, but she has beenwearing political stickers.

“Maybe, yeah,we can’t vote, but it’s kind of cool to know what’s going on and thenext person who’s affecting our nation,” Blaine said.

Manyof the youth vote organizations would like to take credit for thegrowing young interest, and to some degree, some credit may be due. Butsome generational experts argue that junior citizens may actually bebecoming political through experiences of their own.

In “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” a book about the post-Gen Y generation, co-authors William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote that Millennials—those born after 1982—were in some ways destined to become politically active.

Aschildren, they witnessed the controversial 2000 election, Sept. 11,2001, and now the war in Iraq. They saw their older brothers, sistersand even parents get chastised for voter apathy and decided they wouldbe different.

“If you’re 16 and you’repolitically active, that feels like a very new thing for a 16-year-oldto do,” Strauss said in an interview.

Straussadded that the onset of a new politically active generation makessense, when dying generations are replaced by new ones. The lastgeneration to be as politically active was the WWII generation, so asthat population winnows, Millennials are filling the void, he said.

At William Horlick High School in Racine, English teacher Justin Marcinkushas witnessed the political awareness firsthand from students. Duringspirit week’s “Crazy Day,” one 16-year-old girl wore a T-shirt thatsaid “Vote for John Kerry—now that’s crazy.” Another student hasbeen wearing a “One Term President” anti-Bush patch for more than ayear.

It’s an enthusiasm that makes Marcinkus, a fifth-year teacher, happy: “To see them take an active interest in the political process is very enlightening.”