updated 9/20/2004 11:14:58 AM ET 2004-09-20T15:14:58

Voter registration drives aimed at young people are turning 18-to 24-year-olds into an important variable in the presidential election, especially in decisive battleground states such as Michigan — where nearly 100,000 young people have registered in recent months — and Wisconsin, where the numbers are even higher.

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They are the nation’s newest swing voters, with polls showing their support for the major candidates has vacillated in recent months. A Harvard University poll found that, in a five-month period, 19 percent of young potential voters changed their minds about whom they’d support.

“It’s a big population of fluid voters, and they’re largely unknown,” says Ivan Frishberg, outreach and communications coordinator for the nonprofit New Voters Project, which has registered tens of thousands of young people across the country.

Take Kristin Wilson, a 23-year-old in Perrysburg, Ohio, and her 18-year-old sister, Kellyn, a freshman at Ohio State University. Both have registered to vote, but neither identifies as Republican or Democrat and both are taking their time deciding who to vote for.

“I think people underestimate people our age,” Kellyn says. “And they shouldn’t.”

The candidates have made some attempts to reach out to college students and other young people. The Bush campaign has a Web log that includes “Barbara and Jenna’s journal,” detailing the president’s daughters’ campaign exploits. Democrat John Kerry, who made a campus tour last spring, recently appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

And the political parties are using volunteers and paid canvassers to register young voters and get them to the polls. But the attempts can sometimes fall flat.

“Some of it feels very awkward to young people — like the candidates are trying too hard,” says Jane Eisner, author of the new book “Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy.”

Other times, young people feel ignored, says Stephen Lucas, a high school junior in Leechburg, Pa.

“I haven’t heard any serious talk about college tuition, or even people our age mentioned,” says Lucas, who works with a group called Freedom’s Answer to get upperclassmen interested in voting.

It’s still anybody’s guess how many young people have registered in his state, another thought to be a toss-up. Michigan is one of the few that has compiled registration numbers by age.

Clear signs in other states
Officials in several other battleground states — New Mexico, Ohio and Florida among them — see clear signs that more young people are interested in this election. And some election experts believe that polls of “likely voters” often miss young people because the population is so mobile.

In Wisconsin, the New Voters Project claims to have registered more than 109,000 young people — numbers election officials say they have “no reason to doubt.”

“It’s been an incredible undertaking,” says Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the State Board of Elections in Wisconsin, a state Al Gore won by less than 6,000 votes in 2000.

Officials at Rock the Vote — a nationwide campaign aimed at young people — say they expect registration numbers to surge as deadlines in many states approach. In the first two weeks of September alone, more than 163,000 people filled out and downloaded registration forms from Rock the Vote’s Web site. Hans Riemer, the organization’s Washington, D.C., director, says that in the past week as many as 20,000 people a day used the site to register.

At that rate, he says Rock the Vote’s registration numbers may surpass those from 1992 — a year when young voter turnout topped 50 percent for the first and only time since 1972.

One political scientist says he’s particularly interested to see what happens this time in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where voters can register on Election Day. Data has shown that young people are particularly likely to take advantage of same-day registration.

'Door open for a surprising outcome'
“It leaves the door open for a surprising outcome,” says Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale University and co-author of “Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout.”

Stephanie Camargo, a recent graduate of the University of Florida who opted not to vote in 2000, says she’ll be one of those young people who gets to the polls Nov. 2. She has many motivators — from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the war in Iraq (where she has a cousin fighting), to peers who are still looking for jobs.

“Before I thought of politics as a game,” says Camargo, 22, who’s registered in Broward County, Fla. “Now I realize you have to play the game if you want to make a difference.”

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