The 2008 election was the most diverse in modern history, with increases in participation among young people, minorities, unmarried individuals, and other historically underrepresented groups, according to a comprehensive new report by the voting rights group Project Vote. Whether gains by these groups will hold steady in 2010, however, remains to be seen.
Representational Bias in the 2008 Electorate—written by Project Vote researchers Douglas R. Hess and Jody Herman—is an in-depth study that analyzes data from the 2008 general election, and compares them to registration and turnout rates from every presidential election this decade. Historically the U.S. electorate has been disproportionately skewed towards White, older, and more affluent Americans, and while the study shows this is still true, the increasing diversity of the American population was more accurately reflected at the polls in 2008.

“The good news of the 2008 election was the surge in young voters, particularly young minority voters,” says Hess. “The only age group that demonstrated an overall increase in participation rate was voters under the age of 30, and that was largely driven by young Black, Latino, and Asian voters.”

The voting rate of Black women under 30 increased by 7 percentage points compared to 2004, surpassing the voting rate of White women in that age group. The participation rate for Black men under 30 surged by nearly 11 points over 2004, and surpassed that of White men in that age group. Registration and turnout rates also increased among young Latinos and Asians of both genders.

The report, which analyses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, provides detailed information on registration and voting populations according to race/ethnicity, income, education, age, gender and marital status, residential mobility, and disability status. It also provides registration and turnout rates for each state with comparative rankings. Maine, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia are near the top of the list, with 78-79 percent of their eligible populations registered. New York, Arkansas, Tennessee, Utah, and Hawaii make up the bottom of the list, all with more than a third of their eligible residents still unregistered.

The surge in minority voting is an encouraging sign, says Project Vote executive director Michael Slater, and clearly had a powerful impact on the 2008 election. However, the report finds that significant disparities in participation still exist.

“Voter registration is the key,” says Slater. “Roughly 90% of registered Americans from all demographics cast a ballot in 2008. However, nearly a third of all eligible Americans—over 60 million people—are unregistered, and they are disproportionately people of color, lower-income Americans, and citizens under the age of 30.”

The report finds that the disparities, while smaller in 2008, still meant that millions of eligible Americans were left out of the process. If the underrepresented populations were registered and had voted at the rates of those in the overrepresented groups, tens of millions of more citizens would have cast a ballot in 2008, including over 5 million people of color, 8 million low-income Americans, and more than 7 million young people.

“It is clear that traditionally underrepresented groups will vote if given access to voter registration and candidates that speak to their issues,” says report co-author Jody Herman. “But it is also clear that we need registration reforms that increase access to registration and promote participation among these groups.”

This will be particularly important in the coming year, Slater cautions, as the 2010 mid-term elections may erase the gains made in 2008. “Mid-term elections always see a drop in participation, and if the 2009 Virginia election is any indication, the 2010 drop may once again hit these groups hardest. The youth vote dropped by half in Virginia from 2008 to 2009, the 60-and-over vote doubled, and turnout by people of color dropped significantly.”

“It is important that government officials and civic organizations renew their commitment to helping underrepresented populations register and vote in 2010,” says Slater.