Cross-posted at Project Vote’s blog, Voting Matters

With a presidential election year comes the inevitable buzz about how how young people will participate in the democratic process.  This year, however, the buzz is about younger voters starting to fulfill the promise of the 26th Amendment, rather than a drumbeat about their apathy. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. A recent Pew Research Center study showed 18-29 year olds are more invested in politics with 85% showing interested in keeping up with national affairs, compared to 71% in 1999. An interest in local politics leaped from 49% in 1999 to 77% today. This increase in interest and investment seems to be playing itself out over the primary season.
A quick comparison by Project Vote of turnout in the 2004 and 2008 Democratic primaries in five states (AZ, CA, GA, MO, TN) indicates that youth voting is rising rapidly, in some cases astoundingly.
Project Vote looked at Democrats because of the lack of a seriously contested Presidential race by Republicans in 2000 and 2004. It was found that turnout by 18-29 year olds was up 14% in Arizona, 45% in California, 63% in Georgia, 33% in Missouri, and 57% in Tennessee over 2004 turnout in the Democratic primaries.

While still underperforming in most places compared to their percentage in the voting eligible population, it is indisputable that young people are expanding the electorate in 2008 and playing decisive rolls in state after state. The closeness of today’s Democratic primaries in Ohio and Texas should magnify the impact that young people have in those states and it is little wonder that the two candidates have spent large amounts of time in rallies and speeches at college campuses there.

But as we highlight the efforts to “speak the language of youth” for today’s primary and November’s election, we must also note that there are substantial barriers that young voters must overcome in order to fully participate in our foundational democratic right. These barriers have shaped an electorate that is still unrepresentative of the future of America. Frustratingly, the youth electorate – although more racial and ethnically “diverse” than ever – is still dominated by white or educated voters.

In midterm election year 2006, 54% of voting eligible white youth were registered to vote. Black youth followed closely behind with 46% registered, while Asians and Latinos registered well below the national average of 50% at 39% and 43%, respectively.

That same year, voter turnout rates appeared to be stronger among those who pursued a college education. Forty percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or more turned out to vote in 2006 compared to those who did not complete high school (11%). A Harvard University Institute of Politics study found that among young people who voted in 2006, 43% of young voters in school reported having an opportunity to register to vote, compared to non-students at just 29%.

This is one reason why Project Vote has implemented a program that targets young people from underrepresented demographics at the high school level, before they are separated into college students and workers. Similarly, Project Youth Vote also targets students who have bypassed traditional high schools by working with GED service centers to reach students there.

However, reaching non-college students isn’t the only problem. Many young people, including college students, face the same issues as low-income and minority voters when registering to vote or casting ballots. Higher mobility rates hurt these voters when it comes to complying with strict voter ID laws and also makes them more susceptible to being purged from the voter rolls.  

Ohio’s Oberlin College recently recognized this voting barrier for its out-of-state students who could not meet the state’s proof-of-residency requirement by collaborating with the secretary of state to issue “utility bills” from  dorms that would serve to corroborate a student’s identity, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. These “bills” are in the process of being sent, albeit without actual charges, to all students in the dorms with telephone and Ethernet network connections with a bold-face proclamation to save the bill because it “CAN SERVE AS PROOF OF YOUR IDENTITY IF YOU HAVE REGISTERED TO VOTE AND WANT TO VOTE AT THE POLLS!”

In hopes of reaching unregistered youth, a band of students in the Pacific Northwest are featuring online-voter registration through the Internet networking website Facebook. According to the University of Washington’s newspaper, The Daily, Washington recently followed Arizona in facilitating online voter-registration, but the students felt the new resource could be made more accessible to potential voters through the popular website. Echoing the approach of the most successful civic engagement organizations, the group is then connecting new registrants to “local groups and projects according to their political interests.” This is a proven method of ensuring that newly registered voters take the next step and turn out to the polls on Election Day. The Facebook application, “Your Revolution,” is expected to launch Thursday.

Creating greater access to voter registration through online registration or same-day-registration can lead to greater turnout. “Registration is up among all demographics this election cycle,” according to University of North Carolina’s newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. North Carolina’s new law allowing eligible citizens to register and vote at early voting sites has the “potential to drastically increase youth turnout” at the state’s May 6 primary election.

Student political groups are also contributing through on-campus voter registration drives. “‘What you’re seeing is a group of people who are growing up realizing that they need to be civically engaged,” said Democracy North Carolina’s organizational director, Adam Sotak.

Although the above news stories seem to focus on students – which studies show over-represent young voters – there are two central themes that are key in not only balancing the youth electorate but the general electorate: expanding access to voter registration rolls and reducing barriers at the polls. Through modern voter outreach methods (including Internet networking and text messaging)and the implementation of laws designed to help eligible citizens register and vote, the full promise of youth voter participation may finally be realized. The election of 2008 may be the biggest step towards this goal in a generation.

Quick Links:

2006 mobility rates by race, age and income – The Census Bureau

Fact Sheet: Youth Voter Turnout Increases in 2006 – The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement).

The 12th Biannual Youth Survey on Politics and Public Service – Harvard University: Institute of Politics

Representational Bias in the 2006 Electorate – Project Vote

Mobilizing the Mobiles: How Text Messaging Can Boost Youth Voter Turnout – The Student PIRGS

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