MILWAUKEE -- Eleven 18-year-olds stood sheepishly in the front of Room 115 at Solomon Juneau Business High School with their right hands held high in the air. They and hundreds of other seniors in classrooms across this city were registering to vote as part of a pilot program designed to reverse the downward trend in voting among young Americans.
Milwaukee public school officials said they hope to register 60 to 70 percent of the 5,000 18-year-olds in the system before graduation later this month and serve as a model for other big-city school systems nationwide.
The goal may be overly ambitious. Only seven of the system's 15 high schools began the effort on schedule last week, and they registered a total of only 800 new voters, officials said. Absenteeism, communication problems and misunderstandings about who was eligible to vote were blamed for the poor showing.
The swearing-in ceremony here was conducted during an English class by Ethel Walker, a guidance counselor, and Jim Johnson, a public affairs officer from school board headquarters, both of whom have been deputized as registrars.
"We don't want to say you have to register. But we want to make it clear we expect you to register," Walker told the class during an impromptu civics lesson.
"To me, this is very important because voting is power," said Johnson.
Only one 18-year-old student in Room 115 refused to sign a yellow registration card. Tracy Taylor said she was worried she would be called for jury duty if she signed up. "I really don't know about the consequences. . . . I want to find how many times I'm going to get called" for jury duty, she said.
Six of the 11 students who signed up said they would not have registered if the opportunity had not presented itself in their classroom. "Would I have registered? I doubt it. We all have so much else to do," said Carlos Rocket. "I hadn't even thought about it. All my thoughts are on college next year."
School officials here and in San Diego were persuaded to undertake the classroom registration drives by People for the American Way, a Washington-based lobby group, as part of an attack on one of the most perplexing problems in American politics: the decline in voting.
The inspiration for the programs came from the Dade County (Fla.) schools, where 98 percent of eligible students are registered to vote.
"We want to show what big school systems can do so by the 1992 election we can spread to all the big school systems in the country," said Sanford D. Horwitt, director of a citizen participation project for People for the American Way.
He said many schools have voter registration programs, but they tend to be either the pet project of one teacher or one-shot deals where the League of Women Voters or some other group sets up a registration table near election time.
Johnson's goal is to institutionalize the registration program so it occurs every year in every school. The process begins with the school board passing a resolution proclaiming voter registration month and ends with each school reporting to the board how many students it registers, he said.
Horwitt said catching young voters in the classroom is the cheapest and most effective way to register them. "Everyone is there. It sends a message that the institution believes something important is happening, that this is something we value."
Only 50.1 percent of those eligible voted in the 1988 presidential election, a 64-year low, setting off a debate on the alienation of voters from government. The alienation is especially strong among young people.
Since 1972, when 18-year-olds first were given the right to vote, voter participation among 18- to 24-year-olds has declined steadily. In 1988, only half of this group was registered to vote, and only one-third actually voted.
A series of polls and focus groups conducted last year for People for the American Way found a "troubling" lack of understanding about citizenship among young people. Asked to name a quality that makes the United States special, one young man replied, "Cable TV." Asked how to get more young people to vote, a young woman said, "Pay them."
"I think there is an attitude that you are so remote from government that your vote isn't all that important," said Don Wild, a social studies teacher at Alexander Hamilton High School here.
Wild said there has been a marked decline in student interest in current events from the early 1970s. That was especially evident last fall when one communist government after another fell in Eastern Europe.
"The thing that shocked me was here the Cold War was ending and not one student mentioned it in class . . . not one single kid," he said. Wild blames this largely on the number of students working after school. He estimates that 80 percent of the senior class at Hamilton High works 20 to 40 hours a week. "You're dealing with kids who come in exhausted every day," he said.
The voter registration program, however, has been unusually successful at Hamilton. After one week, 160 of the 190 eligible seniors had registered. "Kids want to vote. They want to be registered to vote," said Wild, who has run a registration program of his own for the last six years. "The problem is: Why don't they vote?"