by Cara Gardner

Reaching the age of 16 is something most American kids can hardly wait for; so is turning 21. The ages at which we can drive and drink alcohol are two major milestones in our cultural definition of adulthood. But how many newly minted 18-year-olds do you know who are ecstatic about finally being able to vote? Voter participation statistics show that young people who are eligible to vote aren't doing so; of the 18-to-24-year-olds eligible to vote in Spokane County during the last presidential election -- 44,114 of them -- only 7,045 of them actually cast a ballot. Miah Flores, a 23-year-old Spokane resident, says he's too disillusioned to vote.

"Political morals aren't there, and I don't like how the whole thing is run," he says. "I don't want to be a part of it. Everyone wants to say that we do make a difference, and that our votes count, but in the last election it was proved wrong because a majority of the people didn't vote for Bush, but yet we have him as president."

Of the more than half million 18-to-24-year-olds eligible to vote in Washington state during the last presidential election, about 31 percent cast ballots; in Spokane County, that dropped to 16 percent of eligible voters between 18 and 24.

"The skate park, what happens with swimming pools, the buses -- that's all because of people who vote," says Wendy Acosta of Spokane's Chase Youth Commission. "I tell the kids, 'If the whole classroom voted, you could have changed the results of whether or not the Spokane Valley incorporated or whether or not we have a strong mayor in Spokane."

As the nation gears up for a heated election year, young voters are on the radar screen. Can they swing the election? Throughout the summer, young people will be summoned to forums, parties and open houses designed to register young voters.

While the national Republican Party has a semi-truck touring the nation that opens up with displays aimed at getting young people registered, the Spokane County Young Democrats are hosting a party at the Detour this Saturday, May 15, to encourage young people to register to vote.

"We want to encourage younger people to take responsibility for this right we have -- a right that many people don't have around the globe," says Katie Kirking, the Young Democrats' president.

The Detour will host live music from the Side Project, Matt Kelly, Awesome Miami and DJ Messiah. Though the event is hosted by the Young Democrats, Kirking says the focus will be on getting people registered more than espousing partisan politics.

"There will be candidate tables and information but no candidates speaking," she says. "Mostly we're looking to promote the right to vote. We want to show that it can be fun to be involved in politics."

Another local voting effort, LEAP (Leadership, Education, Activation, Purpose) is underway as well. A government and history teacher at Mead High School, Kevin Workman, started LEAP after he realized how many students are interested in politics.

"LEAP started as a brainstorm to create a community service project that would be linked to a topic that we were studying in class," explains Workman. "What kept coming back as a topic was how cynical and disillusioned young people are, so we started talking about what could be done about it."

LEAP volunteers attend community events, locate people who are eligible to vote and make sure they're registered.

"The key to our mission statement is that we are nonpartisan," Workman says. "We're working our tails off to be as diverse as possible in terms of memberships, sponsorship and getting people involved."

Workman says so far the response is positive: "We've only done this for two events, and already we're seeing a greater and more enthusiastic response from the young people."

LEAP's goal is to register every graduating senior every year. Workman says LEAP is still getting off the ground and is looking for sponsors, but says there's no shortage of young volunteers.

Flores, who doesn't vote, admits he's in the minority among his friends.

"A majority of people I know vote and feel pretty strongly about it," Flores says. "Maybe I'm just stubborn, but it's a choice I made."

Acosta, with the Youth Commission, says young people should see voting as a way to have more power.

"They can swing a vote. Registering to vote is a big deal because it gives you a voice. People will be listening to you forever. You have a voice -- it's time to use it."

The Spokane County Young Democrats will host a voter registration party this Saturday, May 15, at the Detour, 175 S. Monroe St., at 9 pm. Bring ID. LEAP volunteers will also be scouting for potential voters Saturday at the Lilac Parade. Look for the red balloons and T-shirts.

Publication date: 05/13/04

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