CAPE ELIZABETH — After months of studying U.S. political history and monitoring political campaigns, a group of motivated Cape Elizabeth High School students has mixed feelings about the upcoming election.
Although only a handful of them will be eligible to vote on Election Day, the students in history teacher Ted Jordan’s Advanced Placement government class hold strong and substantive opinions about issues facing Maine and the nation.
But their knowledge hasn’t necessarily translated into wide-spread enthusiasm.
Daniel Epstein, 17, said the national election has been disheartening to watch.
“I’m not excited at all about the election,” he said in a classroom discussion Tuesday. “I’m frustrated with the tactics used by both (presidential) candidates in their campaigns.”
His sentiments toward the election are representative of young voters who appear to have lost interest in the national election compared with four years ago.
In a Harvard Public Opinion poll released last week, the number of 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States who plan to vote has decreased substantially since 2008 to 48 percent – a 15 percent drop.
Another student, Justin Cary, said he attributes the lack of enthusiasm among young people to the candidates’ misleading rhetoric.
“One thing that deters me from voting is the lack of truth” in presidential debates Cary said. “The fact that a candidate can go in front of 60 million people and lie or misrepresent the truth is discouraging.”
He said the misinformation confuses people and causes them to lose interest.
Jordan has the students watch the highlights of the presidential debates and check statements made by the candidates on FactCheck.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that monitors factual accuracy in politics.
“I was shocked by how many of the students were turned off by the candidates,” Jordan said. “(The candidates) continually misstate the truth.”
Other classmates said the lack of substance in presidential debates can be attributed to the two-party system, which causes candidates to dive to the middle and advocate for near-identical policies.
“Really what happens is that it suffocates the debate and the candidates are almost forced to advocate for the same thing,” said Matt Gillman, who is an advocate for third-party candidates and has worked on independent U.S. Senate candidate Angus King’s campaign.
Despite their feelings toward the national election, the students still hold on to the ideal that voting is important in local and statewide elections.
This attitude reflects Maine’s voting record. The state consistently has one of the highest voter turnouts in the nation, including in 2010, when Maine had the highest voter turnout in the country, with just under 60 percent. Average voter turnout for age-eligible citizens in the country was only 46 percent.
Although many of the students in the class will not be eligible to vote in this election, it hasn’t stopped them from campaigning for candidates and issues they care about.
Ebe Coughlin, 16, has been working for the Question 1 campaign, which, if approved, would allow same-sex couples to marry.
“I wish I could vote this year because of certain issues in the state like the same-sex marriage referendum,” she said, noting many of the people working on the campaign with her are ineligible to vote because they are underage. “If more young people went to vote it would matter.”
Gillman said working on King’s campaign has encouraged him.
“The (U.S. Senate) race is an opportunity to elect Angus King as an independent who can actually help fix some of the problems and malaise in the Senate,” he said. “The important thing is that he is not beholden to Democrats or Republicans.”
In addition to their work on campaigns and in-class activities, Jordan has had the students moderate debates between state and local candidates and invited many candidates to come and speak to the class.
The class also plans to poll voters in Cape Elizabeth on Election Day, Jordan said, noting that although there’s no school, he plans to provide an incentive of extra credit for those who participate.
Students will use the online polling service SurveyMonkey to make connections between how people voted on issues, such as the same-sex marriage referendum and the $6 million local library bond, and their ages, genders, and party affiliations, among other characteristics.