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NOTIONS: A vote for new voices in the fine art of democracy

February 11, 2008

My sons Zach and Austin came of voting age in 2006. That November, there weren't many contested or competitive races where they lived (near Fort Wayne). Zach registered and voted, anyway. Austin didn't bother. Zach and I gave Austin a hard time about that.

Last September, Zach headed off to college in California, while Austin and his girlfriend, Karolina, began their freshman year at New York University.

A few weeks after arriving in Manhattan, there was a campaign rally in Washington Square Park-the heart of NYU's Greenwich Village campus. Back then, there were many candidates pursuing the nomination for president. Austin and Karolina learned that one of them was coming to speak.

Because that doesn't happen often here in Indiana, Austin and Karolina decided to attend. That night, Sen Barack Obama wowed them, and two of my favorite young people climbed aboard the Obama Youth Express.

During Christmas break, Austin mailed in his New York voter registration. He said he wanted to support Obama over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her own back yard.

Last week, Austin and Karolina not only voted in the New York primary, but also skipped the New York Giants' ticker-tape parade so they could volunteer for a political campaign. In between classes, they handed out Obama posters in Chinatown and urged potential voters to go to the polls.

The Friday before the Super Bowl and Super Tuesday, I drove down to Indiana University to lead a brown-bag lunch discussion with some students from IU's Liberal Arts Management Program.

More than a dozen young women joined the two-hour conversation. Most were from various parts of Indiana, but a few were from out of state.

When the topic turned to presidential politics, I asked who was supporting whom. Nearly everyone in the room said, "Obama." I asked if there weren't some Republicans among the group. Several women raised their hands, one of whom immediately said, "I'm Republican, but I'm for Obama, too."

When I asked the students why, they said Obama's message was energizing and unifying. Some said they'd never had much interest in politics, but this contest had gotten them inspired and motivated.

I asked about race (of the ethnic sort) and its impact on the race (of the political sort). Several students said their generation doesn't think as much about race as my generation does. One student from Louisiana said she'd grown up in a community with many people of different races, and the candidate's race just wasn't a factor for her. She didn't think it would be for folks back home, either.

Over the weekend, one of the IU students-a young woman from Corydon-"friended" me on Facebook with a note saying she'd gotten so pumped up by our lunch-time conversation that she'd called her mom just to talk politics.

As the results of Super Tuesday poured in, I pored over online returns and exit polls. Depending on the state, there were discernable patterns based on race, gender, income, education, religion, church attendance and more.

There also was a significant generation gap: young voters flocking to Obama in numbers that transcended demographic differences; older voters much more packaged, bottled and bound in various silos.

At IBJ's "Forty Under 40" reception last week, two local attorneys cornered me to talk politics.

We discussed the resurrection of Sen. John McCain from the political dead, memorable lines from candidate debates past and present, and the upcoming gubernatorial race here in Indiana.

But mostly, we talked about the dramatic influx of new voters into the political process this year.

I don't know whether Obama or Clinton will win the Democratic nomination. I don't know whether McCain will prevail over Romney and Huckabee.

I do know, however, that I envy other countries that deliver voter turnout in far higher percentages than we too often see in the United States.

And I know that voter apathy has allowed small but vocal factions to oust good people from public office and elect less-qualified or more divisive ones in their stead.

And I know that cynicism, skepticism and a sense of powerlessness have kept many voters from even registering to vote and, therefore, rendered many voices silent.

So when I see my son volunteering for a campaign, when I see college students engaged in the electoral process and informed about the issues, when I hear about a young woman calling her mom just to talk politics, it makes my heart glad.

My deeper hope is that even if their favorite candidate doesn't get the nomination, or win election, or vote in lockstep with them on every issue, these new voters won't abandon their hope for our nation, lose their passion for more unity, or desert their desire to make a difference through democracy.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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