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The demographic party

Could young adults make a difference in the election? Just roll David Burstein's film.

Email|Print| Text size + By Anna Fiorentino
Globe Correspondent / January 21, 2008

He raised his right hand and solemnly swore to bear faith and true allegiance. And on that day last January, Scott Merrick joined dozens of other legislators in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

While it marked the beginning of his second term, any onlooker would have agreed that he still didn't blend in - if not for his age than for his idealism.

Afterward, the newly reelected 22-year-old Tufts University senior spoke astutely into a camcorder about those he represented. He was referring to Generation Y.

"When I was a sophomore in high school, I went down to Washington, D.C., with my mother to lobby for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation," Merrick explained to the 19-year-old behind the lens. "During those three days, I realized just how important our voice is."

The footage has emerged with the new documentary "18 in '08," as has Merrick's interviewer, the young director and producer David Burstein. The 30-minute DVD is available on Amazon and 18in08.com.

In "18 in '08," Burstein talks with about 30 students, including six from Boston-area colleges, as well as prominent policy makers and pop culture figures about the impact 18-to-24-year-olds could have on the 2008 presidential election, leading viewers to draw a simple conclusion: This massive demographic swell - 29 million young Americans are eligible to vote in 2008 - could swing the election.

After all, it worked for Merrick.

"At first, I was naive enough to believe the Democratic County Committee asked me to run for the state legislature to be more than just a ballot filler," he said. "But a lot of young people came out and voted for me. That made the difference."

Jeff Aser, a 21-year-old senior at Boston College who is president and cofounder of the BC chapter of American for Informed Democracy, was also among those who made the final cut in the film.

"When David approached me I didn't know how big the film would become," Aser said. "I did have an idea it would be successful, not just when I saw the list of people David had talked to, but when I when heard him begin to talk. I was completely impressed, in terms of his maturity and knowledge of issues. He's brilliant, and he still hadn't even entered college."

The idea for the film, Burstein said, stemmed from "a disappointing turnout of young voters" in the 2004 election.

"It was really important to me to find out why everyone in my grade wasn't as concerned about the issues as I was," Burstein said. "I saw film as a powerful medium to address this. There hadn't been a peer-to-peer youth perspective on it - just a bunch of older people trying to be cool."

Burstein, now a 20-year-old student at Haverford College, said candidates for office must do more than create a Facebook or MySpace account to win over young people.

"We don't want to see politicians on a col lege campus talking about music downloading," Burstein said. "And we're not going to vote just because P. Diddy tells us to."

Funding came in phases from voter and youth mobilization organizations, and from Burstein's parents. Over the course of three years, Burstein met with everyone from former civil rights leader Representative John Lewis of Georgia and Florida Governor Jeb Bush to actor Richard Dreyfuss and MTV's Gideon Yago. Burstein took a year off after high school graduation to do the filming.

His theme quickly became cynicism and frustration among 18-to-24-year-olds, which he traced to events as disparate as 9/11 and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He found that although it has discouraged some young adults' trust in the political system and in politicians many didn't shy away from volunteering for campaigns or global awareness initiatives.

"Many young people said that they were frustrated the majority of their peers were not voting," Burstein said.

One clip features Phil LaCombe, a Brandeis University student, discussing consciousness about genocide in Darfur. "We went to a rally in Central Park," LaCombe says in the film. "The following day George Bush announced he's going to be sending an envoy to Darfur."

Expanding film viewership

After three years of work, the film was released in November. It was screened in major cities such as San Francisco and Memphis, and there have been discussions with politicians. Burstein wants to get it shown in high school classrooms across the country.

Kent Portney, a Tufts University professor who this fall launched a new class called "Political Behavior of Young People," showed the film to his class in December and plans to include it in future syllabi.

"It shows much more extensive questions about political and civic engagement than you usually find," said Portney, who appears in the documentary. "David and I talked about the potential for new media to exert an influence over participation, and other possible reforms and interventions that might be effective in getting more young people to participate."

In the film, one opinion shared by students, policy makers, and statistics is that the Internet has become a conduit for young people to plug into the political process. Despite a frustration among 18-to-24-year-olds, the film cites an increase in youth voter turnout since 2000. Burstein looked to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement and found that turnout of young voters during mid-term elections increased from 22 percent in 2002 to 25 percent in 2006. In presidential elections, young-voter turnout went from 36 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2004. There are early signs that young voters are already making their impact felt in the 2008 elections. A record turnout of young voters in the Iowa caucuses, for instance, propelled Barack Obama to his victory there.

The film asserts that if the generation that prides itself on individuality wants to make a difference in the outcome of the 2008 presidential election they're going to have work together.

"Politics is in a very divisive state right now. People my age are turned off by it initially," said Merrick, who got his start volunteering on Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "But, as David conveyed in the film, they should get involved because there is just so much at stake."

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