Young voters enthusiastic

But percentage of registered 18- to 24-year-olds in county still behind

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Jenny Mulvey, 23, moved to Steamboat Springs a year ago and started working full time. When she updated her driver's license, she also registered to vote. She got her chance to use that vote early Thursday.

"It's a big election," Mulvey said.

She voted in the presidential election four years ago, but this year she said she is "way more into it."

So are a lot of her friends.

"Everyone I know so far has been on top of it," Mulvey said. "They're really passionate about it."

Issues most important to her include the environment, health care ("because I don't have it") and the war in Iraq.

Her friends are most interested in seeing President Bush leave office, Mulvey said, and have given up nights out to watch the debates and talk politics.

Mulvey falls in that 18- to 24-year-old age group that historically has had the worst turnout at the polls. But now, America's youngest voters have become the focus of voter registration drives and other efforts across the country.

In Routt County, it appears some of those efforts have worked: more than half of the Routt County voters who registered this year were between the ages of 18 and 24.

Although there are 1,384 young registered voters in the county, U.S. Census estimates indicate there are about 2,100 residents between the ages of 18 and 24. That means 66 percent of the age group is registered to vote. Comparatively, about 82 percent of Routt County residents older than 24 are registered to vote.

Routt County Clerk Kay Weinland said she thinks the percentage of registered voters for people older than 24 is "awesome," though she would like to see 100 percent registration. For the 18- to 24-year-olds, she thinks more work is needed to get them voting.

"I would like to see more work done to encourage that age group to become involved in the political process," Weinland said.

The main push will be to encourage registered voters to get to the polls and exercise their rights to vote. In the 2000 election, according to the U.S. Census, only 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds reported voting, compared with 44 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds and more than 50 percent of other age groups.

To vote or not to vote

The reasons young voters don't report to the polls are varied.

For example, Colorado Mountain College student Drew Pinetti, 22, just came to the state from California, and although he voted there in 2000, he wasn't able to register in time for this year's election. If he was registered, he said he'd be voting.

Brennan Hanley, 18, and also a CMC student, could have voted this year for the first time, but did not register. He said that he doesn't "really care all that much about politics."

This year, he doesn't like Bush or Sen. John Kerry as a candidate and knows the Green Party would not win, so said he does not want to cast a vote.

"It's my right, and it's my right not to vote," Hanley said. "In a way, I think you should vote. ... (But it's) almost worse just to pick."

On the other hand, many young voters say they and their friends are excited about this year's election.

Ryan Hoth, 24, has lived in Steamboat Springs for six years. He tries to vote in elections whenever he can.

Hoth said he thinks the level of interest in the Nov. 2 election is "mixed" among his friends. Some who don't know whom to vote for have decided not to vote, and others simply don't care.

But there also are those who have been following the races closely and take seriously what they consider to be their responsibility to vote. Hoth, who plans to vote for Kerry, said this election is an important one.

"(With) what happened in the past four years, the world's a different place," Hoth said.

Anna Dugan, a student at CMC, turned 18 this year and registered through a drive coordinated in part by CMC. She said she's excited to vote in her first election and plans to vote for Kerry because of his stance on the environment and the war.

"I think it's important to vote," Dugan said. "People say it doesn't count, but it does. That's the whole point of democracy."

Student Joel Sandberg, 21, registered this summer as an Arapahoe County resident and requested an absentee ballot. He said he doesn't want to be one of the many who take their right to vote for granted.

CMC student Sean Sullivan, 19, agreed.

"I think you have to vote," Sullivan said. "Everybody tries to talk politics (but) if you didn't vote, don't talk. (Voting) is like the most basic level of participation."

Although a lot of his friends are registered and talk about voting, he wasn't sure whether they all would make it to the polls.

"If I'm around, I'll vote," he said, adding that he plans to vote for Bush, though he is not a big fan of either candidate.

Getting young voters out

On a national level, there are groups and even TV stations -- such as MTV -- that are trying to get young voters to the polls.

Locally, similar efforts are afoot, most notably at CMC.

"I think we've done a bigger push. I think the nation has done a bigger push," Student Life Coordinator Tami Jenkins said. "I think it's definitely made a difference."

The question, she said, is whether those who have registered will make it out to the polls.

Dan Schaffrick, student services counselor, said the college conducted several voter drives with the help of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley. Since those drives, the college has worked to educate students about the issues, providing information and Web sites at various locations in an unbiased, bipartisan way, Schaffrick said.

"My feeling is that an uneducated voter is no better than no voter at all," he said.

On Election Day, the college will provide a shuttle service back and forth from campus to the students' various precincts.

"Presidential elections don't come along every day, so it was a good opportunity to educate them about the political process and how we elect their leaders," Schaffrick said. It also helps young voters start what should become a lifelong habit.

Although he thinks there has been a lot of student interest, he says getting young voters out is tough.

"A lot of them don't see how their votes make a difference, but then there are others who volunteered through this whole campaign," he said.

Diane Mitsch Bush, professor of social sciences at CMC, said she has seen a great deal of interest in the election from many of her students. Some are registering in Steamboat, and others are requesting absentee ballots from their hometowns.

With many experiencing firsthand the increasing cost of education and learning more about foreign and national issues, the election becomes a big deal.

"I think they're thinking about their futures, thinking about what they're going to have to deal with," Mitsch Bush said.

"I think it's also part of being 18 and a college freshman," she added. "All of a sudden, you're looking at the world in a different way. You're realizing there are some issues that are going to affect you."

Mitsch Bush said she expects voter turnout to increase among 18- to 34-year-olds in this election.

"I have this feeling that, just in general, more people are interested," she said.

One of those young, interested voters is Mark Iverson, a 22-year-old student at Montana State University who grew up in Steamboat. Although he could have voted in the 2000 election, he didn't know the issues and so, he said, "it just didn't happen."

But this year, he's forced himself to be informed. He registered in Routt County and requested an absentee ballot. Before filling it out, he listened to radio shows and read newspapers about issues from the national to local levels.

"It took me awhile to start really caring," Iverson said.

During the past four years, he has started caring because of the college classes he's taken and his experiences working.

"It's just sort of becoming more aware that these issues do affect you," he said.

Recently he talked with a childhood friend, and the conversation turned to politics.

"We went on for like an hour, hour and a half," he said about their heated discussion. "We finally had to stop because she said, 'I don't want to lose a friend over this.'"

It was an astonishing conversation to Iverson, as it was the first time the longtime friends had ever talked politics.

"Something's changing," Iverson said. "Maybe we're growing up."

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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