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Dan Davidson '11.5: High or low, youth turnout could offer valuable insight

When the votes are counted after November's midterm elections, don't expect to hear much about how voters under the age of 30 influenced the results. Despite a presidential election that saw large numbers of young people take to the polls, politicos aren't wondering if all of these voters will return in 2010 — it's a foregone conclusion that turnout will be significantly lower. The only question is by how much.

It's no secret that fewer of our peers vote than people our parents' or grandparents' age. In the 2006 midterm, 25.5 percent of 18- to 29-year-old citizens voted. The turnout rate for citizens 30 years old and above was 53.7 percent.

These statistics should disappoint any young person hoping for political action on the issues that matter most to us, no matter one's party affiliation or ideology. Problems that overwhelmingly affect younger people, like the skyrocketing cost of college, are unlikely to be seriously addressed by politicians if they don't feel that the youth vote could make or break their future campaigns.

Advocates for youth engagement will point to encouraging signs, like the three percent increase in 18- to 29-year-old turnout between the 2002 and 2006 elections, as evidence that politicians should clamor for the youth vote leading up to November. But since the 2008 election, we haven't given candidates much reason to court our votes.

The 2009 gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey brought out 18- to 29-year-old voters at rates of only 17 and 19 percent, respectively. A mere 15 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.

Young people still represent an electoral gold mine waiting to be fully tapped. As of 2006, 18- to 29-year-olds represented 21 percent of the voting-eligible population. Youth voting advocates Thomas Goldstein and Thomas Bates wrote in an Aug. 16 Seattle Times op-ed that Millennials (defined as those born after 1980) will constitute one-third of all eligible voters by 2015.

But if it were easy to harness young people's voting potential, I wouldn't be writing this column.

Why don't we vote? Perhaps voter registration laws depress turnout. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) finds that "election day registration seems to have the strongest and most widespread impact" on increasing youth turnout, yet only nine states offered it in 2008. CIRCLE also argues that expanding absentee voting and lengthening voting hours at polling places would encourage greater participation.

Yet even among states with election day registration, youth turnout varies widely. CIRCLE is quick to point out that "turnout … cannot be solely explained by state election laws." Certainly no matter how aggressively states try to increase turnout, candidates also need to persuade younger voters to cast a ballot. But courting older voters is a more efficient use of campaign resources than chasing less reliable youth votes.

Mail campaigns are difficult, if not impossible, to direct at young people. We are also hard to contact by telephone, with many of us only using cell phones. The Internet offers all sorts of new opportunities for candidates to reach us, but the science of online campaigning remains limited. Traditional campaign tools, like lists built through years of door-to-door canvassing and phone-banking, provide more reliable information on who is likely to vote and which candidates he or she favors. It's no surprise that a candidate would rather court a voter with a long history of voting for the party than someone who may have only voted once, if at all — the effort is more likely to be rewarded.

For people studying the youth vote, Nov. 2 will still provide plenty of reasons to pay close attention. With a large proportion of Senate and House races likely to come down to the wire, campaigns that successfully get out the youth vote — or, more accurately, keep the youth turnout from taking a post-Obama swan dive — could swing the decision in their favor. The results could help answer some important questions about campaigning for our demographic.

Can campaigns get younger voters excited without a candidate that seems to break the mold of a typical elected official, like Barack Obama in 2008? Will even competitive races featuring such candidates — for example, the Kentucky Senate race pitting 47-year-old Republican (with a prominent libertarian streak) Rand Paul against 41-year-old Jack Conway, or the Florida Senate battle featuring newly-Independent Charlie Crist, 39-year-old Hispanic Marco Rubio, and 43-year-old African-American Kendrick Meek — bring young people to the polls? Will the inclusion of Proposition 19 — which would legalize marijuana — on the California ballot boost the youth vote in ways the candidates for Senate and governor can't?

I hope that young people defy the expectations and turn out in droves this November. Short of that, we can at least hope the results yield valuable information for future campaigns looking to strike electoral gold.

 

Dan Davidson '11.5 is a political science concentrator from Atlanta, GA. He can be reached at daniel_davidson@brown.edu.


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