Driving home the need for young people to vote is Oregon Bus project's first stopAstoria graduate Erik Neilson's summer project after high school is called the Oregon Bus Project.

But it's more about democracy than transportation.

Neilson's summer internship at the Oregon Bus Project in Portland is about politics and progressivism in Oregon. The project is part of a statewide group led by Jefferson Smith, who was born in Oregon, graduated from the University of Oregon, then graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.

"I've never seen anybody be able to get people so excited about something," said 18-year-old Neilson. "He is the heart and soul of the Bus Project."

Jefferson Smith is the son of R.P. "Joe" Smith, D-Multnomah, a member of the Oregon state House of Representatives. The two are incredibly alike, both highly enthusiastic about politics in Oregon.

"It's amazing the kind of people that he reaches. He knows so much about politics and about what it takes to get the government working well. He can connect with kids and not make it dull or boring," Neilson added.

Neilson was introduced to Smith and the Oregon Bus Project at the Mock Presidential Nominating Convention he went to with his advanced government class from Astoria High School.

Smith was invited to speak at the AHS Career Fair, where the two collaborated and Neilson was hired for the summer. "I wanted to bring some kind of political club to (AHS) to get kids more involved in politics in high school. Jefferson seemed like the best person to get involved with," Neilson said.

Even though Neilson calls himself an independent with Republican views, he says the mostly Democratic project doesn't cause any conflicts.

"It's really cool being in an environment like this. I grew up in a conservative household and a fairly conservative community. Coming to an area like Portland where it is more liberal and getting to see other people's view points and how they feel is really cool."

The BusWhy is it called the Oregon Bus Project when it's focused on politics? The answer is simple. There actually is a 1978 silver and black charter bus with a quote by Teddy Roosevelt on the side: "A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be great or a democracy."

The bus was bought in 2001 when the project started. It seats 47 people, and has so far touched 70,000 Oregon residents through what organizers call "grassroots

progressive movement." Volunteers meet at a central location (usually Grant High School) and board the bus for a Saturday trip.

The trips take place a few times a month, many more in the summer, to go door to door in that trip's target town. "It's straight grassroots politics. It's not big money. It's actual citizens from the community going out and campaigning for the candidates they think will do the best - it's people making the difference, rather than money making the difference," said Neilson.

It has attracted some high-level attention.

Political candidates often aim their campaigns at older people because they are more reliable voters, turning off young people in the process, said Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, an early supporter of Bus Project.

"It is a very vicious cycle, but ... it is a cycle that can be broken instantly," Bradbury said. "If younger people vote, they can change who the likely voters are in one campaign cycle."

Some political experts say the approach favored by the Oregon Bus Project is more effective than mailers or automated phone calls.

"The face-to-face contact seems to raise turnout by 7 to 12 percentage points," said Don Green, a professor of political science who wrote the book "Get Out The Vote; How To Increase Voter Turnout," with his Yale colleague Alan Gerber.

On June 19, a group of a bout 50 volunteers rode the bus to Gresham, where they met 50 more volunteers. The group, grabbing leaflets and clipboards, broke into pairs that walked all over the neighborhoods of Gresham talking to citizens about the upcoming elections for Oregon Legislature.

It was the first bus trip Neilson would take during his summer internship. "I thought it was great, everybody was really dedicated. It was fun meeting a lot of people who really liked what they were doing," he said during the bus ride back to the starting point.

The futureNeilson looks forward to the next 11 trips the Bus Project will take this summer before the Nov. 2 election.

"Right now, I'm working on outreach. I'm kind of focused on the south coast area," said Neilson, whose summer activities have included working with other interns at the Bus Project to run a booth at the Coos County Fair for voter registration.

As for plans, Neilson is going to Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., in late August. There he will major in political science and minor in economics and business then law school.

He said he wants to continue his involvement. "I think I'll be involved with the Bus Project for a while."

Typh Tucker of Portland bureau of The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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