Young voter turnout expected to surge this election

Laura Olson
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

WASHINGTON - After backing the candidates on Facebook, "tweeting" about the issues and posting their analyses on YouTube, a record number of young people are expected to vote in November.

Between 1972, the first election when 18-year-olds were allowed to vote, and 2000, turnout among those 18 to 24 declined by 16 percentage points. But 2004 signaled a change, with an 11 percent increase in youth voting.

That uptick continued during this year's presidential primary campaign, with more than 6.5 million young people participating, according to statistics from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE.

Voters under 30, who make up about one-fifth of the electorate, are energized and engaged more than ever before, said Karlo Marcelo, a CIRCLE research consultant.

Technology has played a substantial role in reaching younger voters. Beyond traditional methods, volunteers can text, instant message or e-mail students to remind them to vote.

"It has put grass-roots organizing on steroids," said Sujatha Jahagirdar, director for the nonpartisan Student Public Interest Research Groups' New Voters Project.

The long primary season also helped candidates reach more voters, Harvard University political scientist Thomas Patterson said.

But tracking trends among these voters, who move frequently and rely on cell phones instead of land lines, remains a challenge.

"It's really tough to get ahold of young people," Marcelo said. "There's no AARP for youth voters."

Young voters trail older counterparts when it comes to turnout. In 2004, according to CIRCLE statistics, 47 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted, compared with 66 percent of those 25 and older.

Barack Obama has been credited with attracting an unprecedented youth following, and polls show Democratic leanings among younger voters. A Gallup poll from last month showed 57 percent of registered youth voters favoring Obama, compared with 37 percent for John McCain.

A sharp increase in the youth turnout could have an impact in battleground states. Ohio, Michigan and Virginia have large student populations, and many campus political groups are attempting to reach their peers.

"Even friends who were previously kind of aloof are interested," said Brady Smith, chairman of the College Republicans at the University of Michigan. "There's a new story line that emerges every day."

Members of Michigan's College Democrats plan to canvass in Michigan and Ohio and will host a debate with the school's College Republicans group.

Students are faced with confusing registration and voting policies in some states. Election officials in Virginia and Georgia have warned students that registering to vote at a college address, as opposed to their home address, could affect their financial aid or tax status. In Indiana, voter identification laws could make balloting difficult for out-of-state students.

While youth turnout increased in 2004, a gap in voting habits exists between students and non-college youths. According to CIRCLE, one in four youths with some college experience voted in February's Super Tuesday contests, compared with one in 14 of those who had not attended college.

But the economy's woes could spur additional participation by non-college youths, Patterson said.

Turnout among younger voters is difficult to predict. But Jahagirdar said any increase is important in changing attitudes toward voting and getting young people involved in various issues in years to come.

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