By Anne E. Schwartz   Published Nov 16, 2004 at 5:17 AM

{image1} It's a sad state of affairs when "Vote or Die!'' serves as the battle cry for the drive to get out the youth vote. Sadly, it's gotten to the point where nothing short of a death will get young people to participate in the political process.

This election year, it worked. But there remains much to be done when there is no presidential election brouhaha.

Whether motivated by G. Dubya or P. Diddy, exit polls showed that while 17 percent of young people ages 18-29 voted this year (roughly the same proportion as in 2000) more of them voted this time around. Nearly 21 million voters younger than 30 voted Nov. 2, an increase of 4.7 million from 2000, according to a study by the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

The war in Iraq may have pushed the under-30 crowd to the polls, and nationwide exit polls conducted by NBC News showed that those ages 18-29 were evenly split at 49 percent on their approval of the war.

Whatever the reason, it is heartening to see young people heading to the polls in large numbers. They are engaged in the debate. They are concerned about the outcome. And the real concern is for those whom various celebrity-encrusted voter drive efforts are designed -- the often apathetic college student.

But there are also the disheartening days. Recently a room of 25 private college journalism students (read: future reporters) unanimously and correctly answered a current events quiz question involving singer Britney Spears' (all 25 with correct spelling on "Britney") latest nuptials. But more than half failed to accurately identify the vice presidential candidates.

There are the good days when the staff of the student newspaper discovers that during tight election races, even a small college publication can get the candidates in the major contests on the record -- and the kids are excited when they do. Their unbridled enthusiasm makes one wish it would always be so when it comes to something as important as politics.

And it's a really good day when teens walk up to the press credential table at a speech where a presidential candidate is speaking to pick up their pass and they take their seat between CNN and other mainstream media. They belong there, and others in the college press should not be timid about demanding credentials to cover the big races. Precious few even ask for the privilege. Some schools get a gold star -- the University of Wisconsin with its long history of a politically aware and involved student body, and Marquette University, which rarely missed a chance to send student reporters to a visit by candidates Bush or Kerry this election season.

Rap artist Sean P. Diddy Combs' "Vote or Die'' effort, while alarmingly named, turned out to be a force this election season. He spearheaded the group Citizen Change in the hopes of increasing voter turnout among young people for the election and in the process, saw a lot of media face time. His latest public statements to national media indicate he won't just drop the ball now that the election is over but rather continue to try to keep young people engaged. He touts an "infrastructure of empowerment and understanding power.'' Good for him. Now it's up to the rest of us not to drop the ball either.

What those who work on a daily basis with a subgroup of the 18-29 demographic -- the 18- to 21-year-old college students -- know is that political interest and involvement when it's not currently fashionable is a challenge to nurture. The off-election years are tough unless you force-feed a current events quiz. And students can feel quite put upon to read the local newspaper in addition to reams of paper that must be perused for other quizzes and such.

It starts at home, and it starts young. Today, young people are fighting the war in Iraq, and they are opposing the war -- both with equal ferocity. So, it's clear they can passionately identify with an issue.

Vote or Die. Catchy. And true.

And a good springboard to start a discussion with the teen of your choice.

Anne E. Schwartz is a Milwaukee-area author and writer. She is an adjunct professor of communication at Carroll College in Waukesha.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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