Presidential Youth Debate Lets Young People Ask The Questions

Online forum, beginning October 12, has candidates debating issues on the minds of young voters.

Tired of watching debates where the moderators pick all the questions? Well, how about having a debate where the only criterion for writing a question is being Gen X or younger? According to the New Voters Project, that's not too much to ask.

The New Voters Project is putting on a debate of its own — the Presidential Youth Debate — during the final weeks of the campaign. The format will be an online question/answer/rebuttal forum in which the candidates will respond to queries composed and chosen by voters age 18 to 35.

At the end of the summer, young voters submitted questions to the Presidential Youth Debate Web site. These were voted on by the users, and 12 questions — covering everything from sex education to cultural and economic imperialism — were ultimately selected for the final debate. The back-and-forth debate will begin on October 12, when both candidates (or, more likely, some of their top staffers) will begin posting their 500-word responses.

The debate attests to the increased importance of the youth vote in the 2004 election, a factor acknowledged by both major candidates. However, while the official sites of both the Bush and Kerry campaigns have featured Web pages outlining the candidates' stands on issues important to young voters, these have been couched in the standard bewildering campaign rhetoric, with no accompanying critique or analysis. Organizers of this debate hope that by asking direct and specific questions and allowing direct rebuttals, they will be able to bring the candidates' beliefs into sharper focus.

"What we're doing is new to the process, because it's not what the candidates decide to put on their Web sites," said Ivan Frishberg, the communications director of the New Voters Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group focused on the grass-roots mobilization of voters aged 18 to 24, which is the debate's major sponsor. "[The candidates] will have to answer questions that came directly from young people and were voted on and deemed most important to young people."

Already two presidential elections old, the Presidential Youth Debate is the brainchild of Anthony Tedesco, a 35-year-old writer originally from Lexington, Massachusetts — a cradle of American democracy. In 1996, Tedesco says he felt disenfranchised from the election process and was voting more on the basis of party loyalty and platforms than on knowing the candidates' stances on issues that were important to him. So he sent letters to the Clinton and Dole campaigns asking them to participate in an online question-and-answer session instigated by young voters. They agreed, and the process garnered more than 2,000 questions. Tedesco repeated the debate for the 2000 election, with George W. Bush and Al Gore answering 10 questions submitted by voters under 30. Tedesco says the 2004 debate, which has already received more than 3,000 potential questions, is the biggest one yet.

According to Tedesco, many of the issues that traditionally interest young voters are personalized takes on current major election themes — this year, the economy and national security are taking center stage. But Tedesco notes that young people are often ahead of the national political discourse.

"In 2000, we had questions about gay marriage, which did not become a hot issue in the process until 2004," he said. Four years ago, both candidates were forced to answer a question about the civil and legal rights of homosexual partners. At the time, Bush stated simply and unequivocally that he opposed gay marriage, and "believe[d] that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman." Gore laid out his support for "traditional marriage," but also voiced support for "equal protection for gays and lesbians," touted the Clinton-era Employment Non-Discrimination Act and spoke of appointing "more openly gay and lesbian individuals to all levels of government than any[administration] in history."

Young voters are also prone to ask questions that would not be likely to come up in other forums, Tedesco said. "Since a lot of people are calling us 'the prison generation' because the U.S. jails more [people] than any other country, this year we've had questions submitted about what's being done to rehabilitate and reacclimatize those people. We've already had questions on where the two major candidates stand on two-party domination, such as, 'Would you encourage a third party to get involved?' "

So while the Presidential Youth Debate is giving the young electorate an important platform to help them make a decision in 2004, it is also outlining the issues important to an age group that will be voting for a long time to come.