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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The search for youth voters

By Carrie Ching
Advertiser Staff Writer

University of Hawai'i students Jonathan Egged, 22, and Gert Larsen, 23, wait for pizza at Magoo's in Mo'ili'ili. They are among the under-30 demographic that makes up 14 percent of the U.S. electorate — enough to decide who wins the presidential election.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Dates to remember

Important dates for the 2004 elections:

Aug. 19: Last day to register to vote for the primary election

Sept. 18: Primary election

Oct. 4: Last day to register to vote for the general election

Nov. 2: General election

State office of elections Web site

Get Involved

"Choose or Lose" discussion groups meet on the first Tuesday of each month — there's one on O'ahu, too. Visit rockthevote.com to sign up.

Join a Rock the Vote "street team." Help register new voters and educate other youths about the 2004 election. Sign up online at rockthevote.com.

Volunteer with a political party

Hawai'i Democratic Party: 596-2980.

Hawai'i Republican Party: 593-8180.

Hawai'i Green Party.

Hawai'i Libertarian Party: 537-3078.

If you roamed Honolulu looking to talk politics with Island residents younger than 30, what would you find? Beer-drinking college students at Magoo's Pizza who "sometimes" read the newspaper. A worker at Ala Moana Center who doesn't have time to watch TV. And party volunteers who've been drawn into the action, plotting their election-season strategies.

During the campaign season, media noise intensifies: Seeking votes, candidates crank up the volume with ads and appearances until the onslaught of information is difficult to ignore. Yet in the last presidential election, Census figures show, only 22 percent of Hawai'i residents 18 to 24 years old bothered to vote, the lowest such turnout in any state.

Surveys say information about this year's election is getting through to some, but not through the usual methods. The Internet, cable TV and comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live" are reeling in more young potential voters — but not all of them. Some, like Ala Moana worker Leilani Fagafaga, 20, are too tied up with work and other concerns to be drawn in.

Gert Larsen, 23, and Jonathan Egged, 22, found hanging out over pau-hana drinks at Magoo's in Mo'ili'ili, fall at both ends of the spectrum. Egged, a theater major at the University of Hawai'i, said he gets most of his campaign news from newspapers, cnn.com and Comedy Central. Larsen, a sociology major, said he doesn't vote, and when people start talking to him about politics, he tunes out.

Political columnist and UH history professor Dan Boylan said there are a lot of reasons the young might be turned off. Two possible factors: A lack of civics education in schools and an overwhelming volume of information.

"Between the Internet and other digital media — like taking pictures and playing games on cell phones — there's just more competition for the attention of (young people) than there was in the past," Boylan said.

Over the course of one day in Honolulu, we set out to find out what potential voters under 30 had to say.

Have they been following the media circus surrounding the 2004 campaign? Do they relate to the war in Iraq, the economy, healthcare? What do they think about Kerry and Bush? Do they even care?

Here's what we found.

10 a.m., Hawai'i Republican Party headquarters

Aaron Johanson, 24-year-old political director of the Hawai'i Republican Party, is optimistic about the challenge of reaching the skate-and-surf set. The Moanalua High graduate recently finished a history degree at Yale and moved home to be near family. He went in to volunteer with the Republicans last December and was offered a job.

Johanson said his party recognizes the importance of reaching young voters through other young people. Because 14 percent of Americans who vote are younger than 30 — that's enough voters to decide who wins — he may be on track.

"It sends a powerful message when twentysomethings are employed by the party," he said. "It makes it easier to attract young people."

A survey conducted by the Youth Vote Coalition (www.youthvote.org) supports this, showing that young adults are most convinced to vote by other young people, followed by young politicians and the president.

Though the Internet is a huge source of information for young people, a Pew Research Center survey reports that local and cable-TV news programs are still the most-tapped sources of political news among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Johanson reads local newspapers and watches TV, but his favorite source is Fox News. "I try to shape my views from a good cross-section," he said.

As a freshman and sophomore in college, he didn't think much about national politics. People his age "have only paid taxes for a few years. We don't have children," he said. "The challenge is to convey to younger people that the government relates to them."

The Sept. 11 attacks shook Johanson into action as a senior at Yale, he said.

"Even kids experienced that monumental event in this country. It was definitely a big change in making people aware that government isn't just this monolith in our life. There are decisions affecting people directly — like national security and Iraq."

Pumped-up campaign coverage has made under-30s in Hawai'i more aware, in Johanson's view. "We watch a lot of TV and movies," he said. "When you see constant election coverage, you're far more cognizant" of the issues.

2:30 p.m., Kamamalu Playground

A school bell rang, and children swarmed out of Royal Elementary School on Queen Emma Street. Across the street, Dawn Woods, 22, kept an eye on her 18-month-old daughter as the toddler had fun at Kamamalu Playground.

Woods is living near Ala Moana Center temporarily while her husband, a Coast Guard seaman, participates in training exercises. She has been catching campaign coverage on TV news, in newspapers and on the radio.

"But not the commercials," she said, referring to the candidates' sponsored TV ads. "Everybody's lying in those, so you can't believe them."

Woods said she gets the most insightful information out of the candidates' interviews and debates on television.

"I think there's a lot of confusion," she said, among people her age. "But in schools and churches, they're starting to talk more about voting."

Issues that Woods can relate to in the presidential campaign are family matters, school, daycare, job availability and tax issues.

"We're trying to start families now," she said. "We're also starting our jobs. We're just getting out there, so people are paying more attention to the economy." Although she didn't vote in the last election, this year she plans to vote for President Bush, she said, because she agrees with his values.

3:30 p.m., Ala Moana Center, mall level

Chic, dressed all in black, Piilani Enos, 22, lounged on a bench during a break from her part-time job at MAC Cosmetics. Enos, who lives in Waipio Gentry but is from the Big Island, said she wasn't paying that much attention to the presidential campaign but did sometimes catch coverage on local TV news and CNN.

"Most people I know are not really interested," she said. "A lot of kids are blinded by other things, distracted. Just thinking about their own lives."

Enos said young people should pay attention to the election "because it will affect us later on." In her view, issues such as the economy, the war in Iraq, and the environment could eventually hit home for people her age.

She also plans to vote this year: "Not for Bush. Anybody but Bush. Hopefully he doesn't win," she said.

Sen. John Kerry gets her vote by default, she said, because he stands in contrast to Bush.

"So many people are dying. ... Bush doesn't really care."

3:45 p.m., Ala Moana Center, top level

In a green, flowered uniform, Fagafaga, 20, swept up litter near Abercrombie and Fitch. Fagafaga, who lives in Kalihi, works full time in maintenance at the mall.

Fagafaga's main source of election information is her family. "My dad and my sister talk about it. They all go for Bush, so I guess I'll vote for Bush, too, then," she said with a shrug.

The Center for Democracy and Citizenship found that 50 percent of young adults discuss politics, government or current events with their parents. But 19 percent never discuss the issues at home.

"I don't know, I don't watch TV. My friends, we're all the same — we work all day and just go home and sleep after work," Fagafaga said.

Fagafaga intends to vote for president in November, but probably will not cast a ballot for mayor in the primary. "I gotta learn more first," she said.

6 p.m., Salt Lake

Pro surfer Kelly Slater may be a tad over 30 but he's influential with young voters, and he's letting his preference be known right on his surfboard, seen here in Huntington Beach, Calif. last week.

Associated Press

Christopher Au, 26, signed up to stuff envelopes and wave signs for the Hawai'i Democratic Party back in June. The self-employed mental-health counselor said that after the controversial outcome of the 2000 presidential election, he felt volunteering with the Democratic Party was a way to do his part.

"I really want to make any kind of difference that I can," he said from his home in Salt Lake.

Au, who recently completed a master's degree at Chaminade University, turns to the Internet to find much of his election news. "I try to find valid sites online," he said.

One in five people ages 18 to 29 get campaign news from the Internet, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Au turns to comedy TV shows like "The Daily Show," "Mad TV" and "Saturday Night Live" for campaign commentary he can't get elsewhere.

"It's a little easier to swallow," Au said. "I have to take all my national news in comedy form or I'll lose it — just 'cause I'm scared as hell. It terrifies me that (Bush) controls the world's largest nuclear arsenal."

Political satire like "The Daily Show" appeals because "they make a lot of good points," he said. "Some of (their) observations are really on target."

The Pew survey found about one in five young people get campaign news from comedy programs. "For Americans under 30, these comedy shows are now mentioned almost as frequently as newspapers and evening network news programs as regular sources for election news," the Pew report states.

Au also liked Michael Moore's box-office-busting documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11." "It was very thought-provoking," he said. "I know it was very partisan, but he did a lot of research. ..."

As for apathy among the young, Au said he understands.

"When I was in college, before I was 21, I didn't (care) either. I started to get more interested in politics during the whole (Clinton) impeachment process. I felt it was ridiculous that they would impeach a president for infidelity.

"I just think that everybody should vote, because (the Bush administration) lied to us, and now they're downplaying it. Why isn't the media jumping all over them like they did with President Clinton?"

By volunteering with the Hawai'i Democratic Party, Au is joining the push to get people younger than him to vote. "I'm trying to get involved with the MTV 'Choose or Lose' campaign," he said. "It's a discussion group where young people sit around and talk about issues. They meet every month."

Au said he'd heard of such a group on O'ahu. He turned to his computer and pulled up www.rockthevote.com to find out more.

8:45 p.m., Magoo's Pizza in Mo'ili'ili

The funky student hangout on University Avenue was packed full of twentysomethings. In the corner, UH students Larsen and Egged were waiting for their pepperoni pizza to arrive.

Larsen, the sociology major, said he's never voted and doesn't plan to start now.

"I don't see a point to it," he said. "I usually don't like any of the candidates anyway."

But for Larsen, a Kalaheo High School graduate, one issue would affect him personally: "The draft has been catching my attention," he said.

Regarding the war in Iraq and the economy, Larsen was lukewarm. "I guess I trust the Bush administration about the war — they must know what they're doing," he said. "The economy does affect me, but I don't pay much attention to it. I just focus on my own problems. When I graduate, then I'll really start to think about it."

When people around him start talking politics, Larsen said, he tunes out.

Egged said he doesn't pay as much attention to the election as he should. But he does sometimes read the newspaper, and he goes online to cnn.com.

"It's a cool way to kill 10 minutes and educate yourself. Like about the election or who Cameron Diaz is dating," he said, laughing. "I do watch the 'Daily Show,' but ... I don't really take it seriously."

He said most people his age don't spend much time thinking about politics, because they don't believe the issues affect them:

"We got our own stuff to think about. Like being late for work, or how the waves are going to be." At the same time, he acknowledges, "Things like Medicare and Social Security do affect us ... indirectly."

Egged has made up his mind to vote for Kerry in the November election. "At first I wasn't sure ... But Kerry, I was really impressed with his war story," said Egged, who grew up in Kailua and attended Mid-Pacific Institute. "I'm a sucker for a man in uniform.

"Here's a guy who'll jump out of a boat to save someone. You've got a guy now who knows what war is really like. He definitely understands the situation more than Bush does."

Egged finished off his drink, while Larsen munched pizza, thoroughly unimpressed.