Turning on young voters

In an era in which more than half the voting-age population decided to stay home and channel surf in '96 rather than pull the voting lever, getting people reinvigorated by democracy needs more than just open debates. Youth Vote 2000 wants, among other things, a debate totally devoted to the issues of America's youngest voters.

A nonprofit coalition of 60 organizations ranging from Young Republicans to MTV's Rock the Vote, Youth Vote 2000 has asked the Commission on Presidential Debates to reserve one of the three debates for 18- to 30-year-olds to ask the questions.

"Established politicians are not talking about the issues that are important to youth in ways that are relevant to youth," says Youth Vote 2000's political and debates director, John Dervin. He ticks off points such as affordable higher education, health insurance (18- to 24-year-olds are the most underinsured group in the country), the environment and Social Security.

"It's important for our nation and our youth for a youth debate," Dervin says, noting that the number of 18- to 30-year-old voters is the same as the number of voters over 60.

In January, right in the middle of primary hysteria, Youth Vote 2000 held a national press conference calling for the debate. Within 24 hours Al Gore, Bill Bradley, John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Steve Forbes had agreed to the debate. Only George W. Bush was out in the cold, according to Dervin, who says the Republican said he would "seriously consider" the debate.

To date, Dervin says, the commission has not given the coalition what it wants. CPD executive director Janet Brown says, "We believe these debates should be targeted to the broadest number of Americans possible. And I hope that includes people in the 18-to-30 cohort."

So the coalition is organizing a mass protest for the first debate, Oct. 3 in Boston. "We hope we're inside asking the questions. But if not, we'll be outside addressing the country," Dervin promises. "You can't underestimate the power of youth."