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The next generation of voters
Todays college students are becoming more politically involved
Gainesville State College students, from left, Meri Jordan, Alejandro Ramirez and Tiffany Strickland, talk about the presidential primary and issues that matter most to them during a roundtable at The Times.

"I think every vote does count ... if you didn't vote, then you haven't tried to change anything."
These are the words - this is the voice - of 19-year-old Amanda Peck, a member of the College Republicans at North Georgia College and State University.

Peck joined the political group because she thought it would help make her an educated voter. She is one of many area college students getting ready to raise their voices for the first time in Georgia's presidential primary, in spite of previous election turnouts that indicate that America's youth has a reputation of staying silent on Election Day.

Most of the college students who spoke with The Times say they strive to become informed on the issues. They are the first to admit that not all of their peers are as interested in the political arena.
"I have a lot of friends who really don't care about politics," said Martin Erbele, 19. He is vice president of North Georgia College & State University's chapter of the Young Democrats.

Erbele said that until now, presidential elections have not focused on the issues that concern younger voters. "We're the ‘forgotten demographic,'" said Erbele. "We don't have the AARP behind us or some auspicious character that represents us.

"We're the 18 to 20-somethings that don't vote."

With more than 600,000 registered to vote in Georgia, the 18- to 24-year-old group has the most registered voters in the state, according to December 2007 statistics at the Georgia Secretary of State Web site.

Yet, this large group -- the "youth vote" -- has historically been asleep on Election Day.
In the 2004 presidential election, voters younger than 25 made up less than 10 percent of the voting population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Young voters have always been the hardest ones to get to the polls," said political scientist Charles Bullock, who teaches American government to freshmen at the University of Georgia.

But recent reports indicate that the sleeping giant may be stirring. Despite their meager participation, the number of young people who vote has increased in the past few years. Already in the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries, voters younger than 25 have had a stronger political presence than in past elections, according to research from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a group based in the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy.

Daniel Doss does not think it is the candidates that are making this election more approachable for young adults. It's computers.

Doss, a 21-year-old junior studying English at Gainesville State College, says that recent advances in technology -- especially the creation and advancement of social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace -- have resulted in a more informed and involved generation of young Americans. "It's easier for us to organize and get involved," he said.

Doss set up a schoolwide presidential primary on Gainesville State's Web site. He hopes the primary will get more Gainesville State students to participate in the real one. "I think it's just the point of educating young people" said Doss.

Erbele thinks this year will be different from past elections, because the candidates are more approachable. Candidates are reaching out to the younger voters, visiting colleges and discussing the environment. As a result, young voters are getting excited, Erbele said. "The youth will come out in numbers that have not been seen before," Erbele predicts.

Excitement about a candidate might just be the bus that drives young people to the polls this year. So far, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has been the one to stir that excitement among younger voters, Bullock said. "If he were to be the Democratic nominee, then that might have an impetus on participation akin to say, (John F. Kennedy) almost 50 years ago," Bullock said.

Doss, a conservative, thinks younger people like Obama because of what he represents. "We have had the Clintons, we have had the Bushs in control of this country for too long," Doss said. "People like him, because he is new blood.

"Young people like that about him, but I'm not sure that's enough to win him the presidency."

Obama is a fresh face, but 21-year-old Alejandro Ramirez, a journalism and sociology major at Gainesville State, believes Obama's appeal is that he is not afraid to cross party lines. "We would probably have a more unified Congress than with (Hillary) Clinton" said Ramirez. "Obama is more diplomatic in that sense."

Ramirez is one of a majority of college students that expressed disdain for party politics.

Meri Jordan, an 18-year-old political science major at Gainesville State, is a prime example. She is a staunch Republican, but says that gay marriage is not the business of the federal government and that abortion should be a woman's choice.

"If you look back at European history when the churches were prominent in the government, that's when all hell broke loose and people were not happy," Jordan said. "I respect that not everybody has my beliefs."

Whatever their beliefs, it's the issues at hand that are firing up some young voters who are making their way into the real world.

"We're making sure that we have a place to go to work in a few years, that our education can't be measured in Scantron scores on a national level," Erbele said. "We want to know that there will be a clean, environmentally safe place for us in the world."

Doss says younger people are worried about the economy and inflation. He says inflation is one of the biggest burdens on younger voters. "We don't have a lot of money, we're borrowing money to survive," said Doss. "Every time the price of gas goes up, the price of bread goes up ... that scares us."

Tiffany Strickland, a 17-year-old English major who is already registered to vote in the primary, thinks that the war in Iraq has a lot more young people aware of the political arena here at home. She is a member of the Politically Incorrect club at Gainesville State, and knows a lot of people who have brothers and sisters in the military. "The war in Iraq seems pointless to everyone here at home," Strickland said. "There's nothing good coming out of it."

The war, the environment or the economy might get young adults talking, but Bullock argues that none of the issues in this election especially concern the younger voters. "I don't know if there are going to be any issues that are specifically addressed to (younger voters) as Vietnam was a generation or so ago," Bullock said.

Younger voters may turn up in higher numbers this year, but Bullock doubts that they will vote at the rates that their parents and grandparents do. Peck feels the same way.

"I think we'll have a turnout, but it's not going to be anything huge," said Peck. "People my age are just a little, like apathetic; they don't see how ... this election is very pertinent to jobs and family."

Jordan disagrees. "I really think this election is so polarized that people have a really strong feeling one way or the other," Jordan said. "I definitely think people are going to be voting more than we've seen in the past."

There are plenty more who think that America's youth are going to vote, because there is no other choice. It is the only way they can have a voice. "We know that something is not right, and we have to do something to make this right,"  Doss said.

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