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Voter Drives Seek To Reverse Low Turnout by Youths

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This week, student-council leaders in high schools across the country will spearhead a drive aimed at reversing what officials call "embarrassingly'' low levels of voting by young people.

By inviting registrars into schools, broadcasting public-address announcements, and distributing brochures and posters, the student officers hope to send a message to the nation's 2.9 million high-school seniors: Register and vote.

The effort, led by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, follows a similar campaign last week in California, aimed at that state's 250,000 seniors.

While student voter-registration projects have existed since ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution--which lowered the voting age to 18--in 1971, this year's efforts are particularly imperative, sponsors say. The participation of young people in state and national elections, they note, has been declining from already-low levels.

In 1984, only 16 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24--a smaller proportion than that of any other age group--cast ballots in the Presidential election, according to the Council for the Advancement of Citizenship, a Washington-based group that encourages young people to exercise their right to vote.

This year's efforts also reflect the growing awareness among educators that schools have a responsibility to instill democratic values in students, sponsors of the registration campaigns say.

"The increasingly lower levels of voter turnout, particularly among young voters, is an embarassment and possibly a threat to the world's most successful experiment in a democratic form of government,'' said Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, and March Fong Eu, the state's secretary of state, in a joint statement.

"We have to start the individual's pact between the citizen and the government,'' Mr. Honig added in an interview. "We have to make the essential argument for participation. It's not genetic.''

"We have to make the case for kids,'' he said. "We have to develop their allegiance to democracy, and their willingness to take part in it.''

Through school-based registration drives, he and others said, educators hope to foster habits that will continue throughout students' lives.

"If students register in school, before they are out in the real world, they are more apt to continue to do it,'' said Patricia M. Frierson, executive vice president of the Vote America Foundation, a Washington-based nonpartisan group. "Once they are registered, they vote.''

Majority of Minority

Declining voter turnout is a problem among all Americans, noted former U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, who sponsored the 26th Amendment. In a recent survey of 27 democracies, Mr. Randolph said, the United States ranked next to last--surpassing only Colombia--in voter participation.

This worrisome trend means that a relatively small proportion of the population is able to set the nation's future course, he said. Noting that President Reagan was elected in 1980 by only 28 percent of Americans eligible to vote, Mr. Randolph warned that a "majority of the minority'' is making critical decisions.

And young adults, even if they do choose to vote, represent a shrinking minority within the electorate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The number of 18- to 24-year-olds has declined by 3.5 million since 1980, the bureau reports. That age group now represents 14.5 percent of the voting-age population, down from 18.4 percent at the start of the decade.

'A Class Act'

Sponsors of the voter-registration projects say they hope to compensate for that demographic shift by significantly boosting participation levels among young voters.

The NASSP campaign--called "Register '88: Make It a Class Act''--is the most ambitious effort. With support from the Maurice R. Robinson Fund, NASSP officials have sent kits of materials on voting to each of the nation's 19,500 high schools.

The kits include step-by-step guidelines on how to conduct a registration drive, along with promotional aids, such as fact sheets and announcements for student newspapers and public-address systems.

To provide incentives for students, the kits also include stickers and certificates that registrars can award to those who register.

The group chose student councils, rather than social-studies teachers, to lead the effort because officials were concerned that teachers would be unable to fit it into the curriculum, said Shirley R. Olson, the project's director. In addition, she said, "we thought we might get a more enthusiastic response having students involved.''

'You've Got the Power'

While California schools are expected to participate in the NASSP project, state officials there also designed their own campaign--called "You've Got the Power.''

That effort was conducted a week before the national project in order to give students time to register for the state's June 7 primary election. About half the state's seniors are expected to turn 18 by that time, according to Mr. Honig.

To publicize the effort, state officials created public-service announcements featuring young television and movie stars. They also sent schools suggestions for activities, and urged local leaders and parent-teacher organizations to help conduct registration drives in schools.

While some schools simply made registration forms available, others conducted week-long educational programs on voting or planned voting-related activities, such as plays and videotaped productions.

In addition, Mr. Honig urged elementary- and middle-school teachers to discuss the electoral process with their classes. He suggested that the younger pupils could encourage their parents to register to vote.

"This is an exercise in civics and history,'' he said.

In other states, teachers are also boosting instruction on the electoral process.

A Lack of Motivation

"We do teach about voting all the time,'' said Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. "But there is always a special focus in Presidential-election years.''

To help improve such instruction, the Vote America Foundation has prepared curricular materials that explain the history of the franchise and how it works.

Produced with support from the General Dynamics Corporation, the materials were distributed last month to 25,000 high-school teachers.

The foundation will also conduct public-service campaigns to encourage young people to register, said Ms. Frierson. Instruction in how voting works is insufficient to ensure that students participate in government, she said.

"When you ask students why they didn't register,'' she said, "a lot of times, the answer is not that they didn't know how, but that they lacked motivation.''

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