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The youth vote: Missing in action

CONSERVATIVE pundits have been in a frenzy for months about what's wrong with America: bloated government, misguided bailouts, runaway deficit, an Obama administration out of touch with middle America.

CONSERVATIVE pundits have been in a frenzy for months about what's wrong with America: bloated government, misguided bailouts, runaway deficit, an Obama administration out of touch with middle America.

The talking heads are preparing us for the inevitable result of this election, when the tea party and their GOP hopefuls, flanked by fed-up conservative voters, storm the beaches and cut a swath straight through Democratic strongholds.

Republicans are set to win, possibly big, but their inevitable success should not be ascribed to courage or conviction. The major blame for big change in tomorrow's elections should be assigned to two groups who, I'm afraid, will likely pull a no-show at the voting booths this time: black people and young people.

Both could be charged with dereliction of duty. Yet it is America's youth, our bright-shining multicultural future, who should take the brunt of the blame.

IN THE 2008 presidential election, the Obama people made political hay over the energetic involvement of young people in the political process. You'd have thought that college students and their 20-something peers were ready to lead a revolution.

And, for a while I drank the Kool-Aid, too. Until young people drifted back into their lethargy, which occurred right about the time the last band sounded its final notes on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Obama's inauguration celebrations.

A student in one of my college classes told me that "more kids are becoming evolved and understanding the importance of voting" - and there's some truth to this "evolvement." In the last presidential election, just two years ago, voter turnout for 18- to-29-year-olds (the "youth vote") was about 53 percent.

That number represented an increase of about 5 percent over 2004 numbers, and about 11 percent over 2000. Progress, it didn't set any records.

The record was set in 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote for president and the last full year of the military draft. Even the novelty of voting, the dread of the draft, and the continuing protests against the Vietnam War couldn't inspire more than 55.4 percent of eligible young people to pull a lever.

The voter turnout for 18-to- 24-year-olds over the past 38 years is even worse. They have never broken 50 percent.

"It's at least half, so that's better than less," offered another one of my students.

A cynic would say that young people will always have more pressing concerns, like doing their homework, giving their Facebook sites a lift or trying to score. And those are the ones who do vote.

The poet E.E. Cummings once said that those who care about "the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you." I'm not so sure about that. Syntax - and being informed - really matter.

I know too many college students who couldn't get their act together to register or fill out an "obscene" ballot. "An absentee ballet." Or an "absinthe" one.

According to some students, the Internet, celebrities and parents can improve voter turnout:

"I feel the internet could help a person with politics because on the Internet they write articles on the champaigns and put them on the Internet."

Or, "In my high school government class my teacher tried to make us all register to vote. Those who did not had to get a note signed from their parents saying they did not have to. About half of my class did not register. A lot of parents were very angry @ my teacher for trying to force us."

(I am very angry @ this teacher, too. Shame on my colleague.)

Of course, the real world, lurking just around the corner, will help immensely with civic responsibility. When you have to pay your own rent or mortgage, it's easier to sort out the difference between donkey and elephant.

And let's be honest.

Most of us wrote and said some pretty dumb things back in high school and college. I know I did. My first handwritten love letter was returned to me with my spelling and grammatical errors circled in red. (She's a lawyer now.) In college, I wrote a paper called "The Power of Edjucation." I also misspelled the name of the professor.

Except for the more strident and boneheaded members of the tea party - and their equivalents on the other end of the political spectrum - most of us do evolve. More Dr. Jekyll, less Mr. Hyde.

Just don't count on young people leading a revolution. Or helping win an election.

Mark Franek lives in Philadelphia.