For Young Voters In a Media Jungle, A Study Guide

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- It's "taxing," "daunting," "overwhelming," Eugenia Garcia is saying. So many candidates: five in total, and that's just her Democrats. And so many issues to think about: Iraq, health care, global warming and immigration, the one she cares about most.

But online, where the 21-year-old political junkie follows the presidential campaign, "there's just too much information," she says. "I'm taking this election very seriously. I don't want to make the wrong decision."

Garcia, who's studying politics at Harvard, is living in a tech-savvy, hyper-connected world in which a monsoon of political information rains down on her each day. Four years ago, it was all about blogging, e-mail chains and MeetUp groups. Now add YouTube, Facebook and MySpace, each with its own political hub, and Garcia, already an overstuffed info consumer, faces a perplexing online gumbo. Where to go? What to read? Whom to trust?

On a recent evening inside Quincy House, one of the Harvard dorms, Garcia's making her customary rounds on the Web -- skimming through ("My parents are from Argentina. I care a lot about Latin American news"), chatting with friends on Skype ("It's an international thing. You can chat and make semi-free long-distance calls") -- but also checking out a new political site she heard about from friends: It's created by students for students, or anyone else curious about where candidates stand on the issues. It promises political literacy for young people trying to become educated voters.

Founded by a 20-year-old Harvard sophomore named Will Ruben, VoteGopher strives to focus comprehensively and authoritatively on issues facing the candidates, says Ruben. It's a unique effort to fill an information void for young voters trying to connect with electoral politics.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Clinton, to name just two, have already posted their positions on key issues on their campaign sites. The Des Moines Register and The Washington Post, among other media outlets, track various issues on their online election pages. But VoteGopher features 16 issues. Education, health care and Iraq are of course included. Yet so are rarely addressed topics such as globalization, government reform and business and labor regulations.

The site's motto: "We dig, you decide." Hence the gopher.

Ruben and his staff of 25, most of them Harvard students, read debate transcripts, watch YouTube videos and scour news sites to collect content. Though users can make submissions of their own, such offerings are carefully filtered.

"It's impressive what they've been able to put together," says Lee Rainie, director of the Washington-based Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Back in the pre-Internet era, these students would have just attended town hall meetings, stuffed envelopes, maybe made some phone calls to be involved. These days they're starting their own Web sites."

And if the two previous campaign cycles are any indication -- turnout of voters under the age of 30 increased in the 2004 and 2006 elections, says Peter Levine, director of the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement -- this year's election will witness yet another jump in young voter turnout. In Iowa, voters under the age of 30 made up a fifth of Democratic caucus participants.

All of which means, in theory at least, greater demand for comprehensive political information. And accessibility is key to voter engagement, says Carol Darr, former director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

"Look, why do you think Barack Obama and Ron Paul are raising all that money?" Darr asks. "Yes, they have messages that people are reacting to. But also because contributing money has gotten so much easier because of the Internet. What these students have come up with is an easy way to study the issues."

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