WASHINGTON – Justin Hunt likes to play rugby and go to toga parties. The 18-year-old Yarmouth, Maine, resident listens to the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and other musicians famous before he was born. Like many college freshmen since 1951, one of his favorite books is “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Like most of his fellow college students, Hunt logs on to Facebook, a social networking Web site, every day. But instead of messaging friends, he’s scanning political candidates’ profiles.
In the eleventh hour before next week’s elections, Web sites like Facebook are trying to engage the elusive 41.9 million eligible voters ages 18 to 29.
Facebook was founded only two years ago with the aim of connecting people through social networks. Now, the site has more than 9.5 million registered users in more than 40,000 geographic, work-related, collegiate and high school networks.
The site launched its “Election 2006 network” on Sept. 1, and has put online 1,400 profiles of candidates and other members of Congress. A few weeks later it started “Election Pulse,” a page that ranks candidates and tallies top campaign issues by how many supporters each has.
“Election 2006 was started to give younger voters a voice,” said Brandee Barker, a Facebook spokeswoman. “They are very active with their opinions on the site.”
Already, more than a million users are engaged in campaign issue groups or in supporting candidates, she said.
Hunt, for example, is a member of “Snowe for Senate 2006” and “Woodcock Block,” groups that rally around political views in support of or opposition to political candidates.
“I think that Facebook works very well for getting the word out to younger voters,” Hunt said. “I believe it can provide a solid definition of certain issues to people who would otherwise never know if they didn’t surf Facebook for hours on end.”
On each candidate page, people can post messages for visitors to read. While some messages are humorous – one person posted “Greek Pride!” on the page devoted to Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine -most are political analyses of issues.
Hunt posted a message on the Snowe page after he read a statement he considered to be untrue. A heated debate between two Snowe supporters ensued.
“Online discussion can often get quite heated, and [Facebook] allows people to post links and use resources to show information that supports their arguments,” Hunt said. “This often allows already decided voters to see new information they hadn’t considered” and which might lead them to change their minds.
Hunt said that if he hadn’t been interested in politics and current events in the first place, he doubted he ever would have glanced at Election Pulse.
That is where Rock the Vote stepped in.
A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to building political power for young people, Rock the Vote joined forces with Facebook in early October in an attempt to spread political awareness and register voters. Already, the organization has registered 2,300 young people to vote through Facebook, and 12,500 Facebook members have joined Rock the Vote, said Hans Riemer, political director of Rock the Vote.
“Young people are taking over and building a lot of community on the Internet – that’s a space where politics can come alive,” Riemer said. “Information can be shared much more easily and issues can be discussed much more readily, and I think it’s going to have a huge impact over time.”
This year’s elections follow a presidential contest that witnessed the highest level of participation by young voters in more than a decade, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, an organization that conducts research on political engagement of young Americans.
In Maine, 59 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds turned out to vote in the 2004 presidential elections, up 8 percent from 2000, according to the center. Maine ranked fifth overall in turnout in that age bracket.
“States that have same-day voter registration, like Maine, have a much higher voting turnout,” Riemer said. “And millions of kids across the country would vote if they had those laws.”
But it would be a mistake to compare this year’s voter turnout to 2004’s since presidential elections draw more voters. Instead, the closer comparison would be to the 2002 midterm elections, and even to 1994, the last time midterm elections followed a surge in youth voting in a presidential election.
While the general trend in national voter turnout among young people during midterm elections was down between 1982 and 2002, the center reported, Maine’s turnout has been on an upward swing. In 2002, voter turnout among young people in Maine was higher than national youth voter turnout by 9 percentage points.
Not many young people vote in off-year elections, which usually are dominated by hard-core partisans, Riemer said.
But with so many tightly contested U.S. House and Senate seats this year, young voters could have an enormous impact on the outcome.
“I think that young people are going to have a huge impact on this election because they are going to be voting 2-to-1 Democratic,” he said. “In terms of how young people can make a difference, if they really turn out 2-to-1 Democratic, they’ll probably throw a lot of elections” to Democratic candidates.
Facebook is not the only mainstream Web site where profiles and information about candidates are displayed for young voters to browse. MySpace, a similar social networking site, and YouTube, a site where anyone can display home videos, are loaded with political information and arguments.
“What’s happening with a lot of our kids who are interested in politics is they’re going not just to Facebook, but to YouTube and others, and seeing things that I don’t see,” said L. Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College in Waterville.
Anyone with an e-mail address can sign up for a MySpace or Facebook account, just like anyone with a home video can upload it on YouTube. While tighter restrictions on Facebook allow its members to see only the profiles of their friends and people in their networks, unlike MySpace, it still leaves room for the creation of mock profiles.
Placing politics in a loosely monitored environment can have negative consequences, Maisel said. Fake profiles and satirical campaign commercials, for example, can do harm.
Thus a search of YouTube for information on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, would turn up not only a video clip that Kennedy produced and uploaded about his stance on Internet neutrality but also a singalong clip that features a drunken Kennedy as a Chappaquiddick lifeguard.
“Some of the stuff you see on YouTube is material that nobody would dare put out anywhere else,” Maisel said. “Some of it’s scandalous, and it’s all unfiltered, and a lot of it’s unaccountable. The federal disclaimers which are necessary on mass media advertising are not necessary there. It’s negative to the democratic process.”
Similarly, political television programs aimed at younger viewers also can cross lines. “I think [Comedy Central’s Stephen] Colbert really is totally cynical,” Maisel said. “I think ‘The Daily Show [with Jon Stewart]’ is in fact quite informative, and I think viewers see the difference between the two.”
The Internet, Maisel said, is “a pull technology, not a push technology. So you have to have somebody who is interested to go there in the first place.”
The interest may be there. A debate between Snowe and her Senate challengers at Colby College on Oct. 22 had a surprisingly large student turnout, Maisel said; he estimated that out of 350 people who attended, 250 were students.
“In 2004 there were 21 million young people ages 18 to 30 who voted,” Riemer said. “It was one of the biggest turnouts ever. If a lot of them came back to the polls, they could swing the election.”