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A new kind of non-voter adds a fresh voice to American politics
By Channtal Fleischfresser

Jasmin Morales' mother was voting for Hillary Clinton on Super Tuesday, and Morales felt distraught. "What are you doing?" she asked. "Hillary has a lot of experience but Obama is going to create the change that this country needs. Think about my future."

The high school junior's impassioned pleas failed to persuade her mother, who did not vote for Barack Obama on Feb. 5.

 Neither, for that matter, did Morales. Morales will not be eligible to vote in the 2008 presidential election, at a time when she said history is being made.

While the image of the American non-voter has traditionally been one of apathy and inaction regarding politics, in the 2008 presidential election, that image is changing. Non-citizens and young people who are not old enough to vote have been particularly active in the presidential primaries.

The executive director of John McCain's New York office said many young people who are ineligible to vote are involved in promoting the likely Republican nominee. But political observers said a large number of non-voters, particularly the young, support either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. National polls show that a large majority of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 support the Democratic candidates.

Dr. Robert Blendon, professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said non-voters are usually perceived as “young people and people in immigrant communities who are not participating in mainstream civic life.”

But Will Straw, a student at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a British citizen, has been campaigning for Hillary Clinton for most of the past year even though he can’t vote. He said he came to study on a Fulbright scholarship to learn from this year's election.

"I wanted to be here during the U.S. election to learn from its politics," he said. His involvement with the Clinton campaign began shortly after his arrival in the United States last June.

The involvement of non-citizens in the campaigns has also generated concern about non-citizen participation in American democracy.

Non-voter participation is not recorded officially because campaign staffers usually do not ask volunteers for their age and citizenship status. But those involved with campaigns said that more non-voters than usual are participating in this year's election cycle.

Curt Anderson of Baltimore, a pledged superdelegate for Obama, said non-voter participation has increased markedly from the last primary season. In 2004, he supported Howard Dean who, like Obama, appealed to many young voters.

But Obama, he said, has crossover appeal. "With Dean, if they were non-voters, they were mostly young people," Anderson said. "With regard to Obama, there's more of a span of the type of non-voters. I've seen more of a mixture than with Dean."

While non-voters who are Obama supporters said they admire what they consider his personal charisma and sincerity, those who support Clinton stressed how this year’s election could reverse the past seven years of American policy, specifically in the handling of the Iraq war. For Will Straw, "the Republican administration was a detriment to the whole developed world."

Straw, however, must often explain his London accent when making phone calls for the Hillary campaign. "You can't observe unless you take part," he said, referring to his volunteer efforts for the campaign. "I am a citizen of the world, and I am affected by the American president."

However, not everyone agrees that non-citizens should be involved in the American political dialogue. Jason Megill, an immigration-control advocate who, until recently, was based in New York City, said he believes it takes decades for people to put down roots in a new community. "I am less than thrilled that American foreign policy is a target for the new arrivals' political influence," he said.

John Vinson, editor for Americans for Immigration Control, said that "American politics are meant for American citizens with a vested stake in the country. When you have people without a vested interest, it can send it in the wrong direction."

But Jasmin Morales is still trying to make what could have been her vote count. Her cousin, Luis, turns 18 in August, and his parents are voting for Clinton. "I'm working on it," she said. "I've got all that time to convince him."

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Banner photo: arbyreed

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