By andrei Blakely
ANNAPOLIS – Just 11 months ago, Maryland Young Democrats was moribund and leaderless.
Now, the youthful arm of the state Democratic Party is active in 12 counties and at eight universities with members working for the party in states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Last year, the Maryland Federation of College Republicans was named state of the year by the National Federation of College Republicans for largest increase in enrollment and fund-raising.
As the Nov. 7 election nears, Maryland youth are breaking the stereotype of the apathetic young voter.
“We are the ones on the front lines during the election. Young people are future leaders. Young people bring new methods and a different set of eyes,” said Tyronda Stewart, 25, national committeewoman of the Maryland Young Democrats.
This year’s election, a hotly contested match between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, has the largest population of eligible young voters since the Baby Boom.
“Young people do care about this election, and we have a lot of young women involved,” said Suzanne Knighton, 32, president of the Anne Arundel County Young Republicans.
Many young women in the Republican Party are pro-choice on abortion, contrary to the party’s official stand, and the party is more tolerant of their views, she said.
Even so, the young don’t vote in the numbers that the elders do, say political experts.
“Young people are much less likely to vote than older voters. The old saw is that if you’re age 20 you have a 20 percent likelihood of voting and if you’re age 80 you have an 80 percent likelihood of voting,” said William A. Galston, public affairs professor at the University of Maryland.
This generation’s historic lack of voting involvement has led many to believe that their political participation will remain low through middle-age, he said.
But there are those who are trying to reverse the predictions. Groups such as Rock The Vote, a non-partisan organization formed by musicians in Los Angeles, plan nationwide bus tours and concerts to register voters. So far they’ve registered more than 2 million voters.
Some college-age students say their peers don’t vote because they’re away from their home states while on campus.
“A lot of young people have a lot going on and voting can be seen as an inconvenience,” said Stacy Ganister, 20, a University of Maryland student from Pennsylvania. “I think that voting does not affect me because I’m still living off my parents’ money. (Campus living) shelters you from the real world.”
Other University of Maryland students say they are interested both in issues and candidates.
“I am looking for a candidate to do something about the cost of medication. Whom I vote for can have an affect,” said Peter Schwartz, a University of Maryland student, who said he has a chronic illness.
“I am surrounded by people who are not politically aware,” said Christine Kim, 22. “I am not really into what they can do in terms of radical changes. As a Christian I want someone who fears God and I will trust in their judgment.”
At Bowie State University, students said voting habits among the young are improving.
“(Young people) are getting more enlightened in terms of exposure to voting,” said Esther Sakindutire, 20, an accounting major.
“I think a lot of youth are going to vote more because they realize how important it is,” said Charlie Ositelu Jr., 20, a math and engineer double major.
Some students see voting as a chance to express rebellion against the party of their parents.
“(Young) people are sort of apathetic about voting. They care about the issues, but not voting,” said David Wilhelm, 19, who backs Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.
Wilhelm, a Bethesda resident on leave from Lawrence University in Wisconsin, is a registered Republican with parents who are liberal Democrats.
“A lot of people where I go to college support (Green Party candidate Ralph Nader). There are a lot of left-wing people,” he said.
But it’s easy to see why it’s hard to motivate teens and 20-somethings to vote, said professor Galston:
“Young voters differ. They are young, unmarried, have no kids, no medical care or retirement pay.”