Find and follow us
Get our most popular stories once a week!
Young Voters: Brush Off Your Shoulders
The 2008 election cycle was marked by many firsts: It brought America's first African-American president elect as well as the longest and most expensive campaign on record. Then there was that other first — the exceptional youth turnout. Young voters had been denigrated by pundits as apathetic but they refused to be demoralized. Earlier this year I argued that three was the magic number (as in increased youth turnout for three consecutive elections), and the pro-youth voter stories in recent days are a direct result of young people's actions this cycle.
Youth and apathy are no longer bedfellows. 2008 was the third election cycle in a row, following 2006 and 2004, which witnessed an increase in voter participation from the previous election. That's impressive growth, which is more than we can say about the teenage unemployment rate. I'll come back to jobs a little later, not least because the economy was the number one issue on voters' minds on Election Day.
Compared to 2000, this year's youth turnout rate is at least 11 percentage points higher. The Millennial generation are citizens who vote and volunteering at higher rates than the 1990s. In addition to reporting on this generation's electoral presence, the media has run stories on the other ways that young people were active in the 2008 presidential election. And others are looking still further a field, and rightly so, to the activism we might expect post-election from young people. After the spike in the youth turnout rate in 1992, youth engagement was not fully realized, marked by declines in volunteering, voting, and positive views about government and politics.
Youth Step Up
A historic shift in the power structure of electoral politics going back several years drove this increased activism. Internet's democratic domain made a diverse amount of youth generated content available.
Additionally, groups like Forward Montana made public their roll of disputed registered voters, allowing all voters, though largely targeting young voters, to circumvent registration problems before Election Day. A group of students created GoVoteAbsentee.org, a one-stop for would-be absentee voters from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Rock the Vote and MTV created legions of on-the-ground reporters obsessed with following young voters, their issues, and what engages them in this election. On Election Day, field organizers and young voters from several states and campuses alerted young voter organizations to spurious emails and text messages that sought to confuse their recipients about their voting rights.
Young people multi-tasked on and offline in this election, establishing a constant presence on social networking sites as well as on the campaign trail. Among young people during the 2008 primary season, 54 percent generally followed news about public affairs, 7 percent had volunteered for a presidential campaign, 13 percent attended a political meeting, and 15 percent made a political donation, nearly half of did so online.
During the general election campaign in September, a Rock the Vote poll found that 92 percent had talked with friends or family about the election; 63 percent received their news from online sources. A CBS News-UWIRE-Chronicle of Higher Education Poll conducted in October found that 13 percent of college students in select battleground states had volunteered for a campaign, while 65 percent had visited a candidate's website.
While these percentages appear lower in comparison to other current polling, these statistics are a sign that young people increased their political activism over previous elections in ways other than voting. What all these polls have in common is the increase in young voters paying attention and getting involved in this year's election.
Engagaed For The Future
Young voters were engaged in this election, and historic campaign aside, the economy was the number one issue — specifically creating jobs and managing the rising costs of college tuition. The above polls mentioned that young voters wanted to hear the candidates talk about these issues. Barack Obama made the most direct appeal to young voters, offering to pay for college in exchange for community or military service. This proposal may be one of the reasons that 66 percent of young voters choose Obama for President, the largest vote share ever bestowed upon a presidential candidate by any age group since 1972.
Age and voting are positively correlated; in other words the older one gets, the more likely they are to vote. The Millennial generation has set a new standard, starting on a higher and sturdier plateau of electoral participation than previous generations. As this generation ages, as more voter-friendly voting laws are passed, and as more members of the Millennial generation demystify the mechanics of voting, the more we can expect the voice of this generation to carry through out the 21st century.
Raw exit poll data will soon become available and Census data on voting will be available in the spring of 2009, allowing youth vote researchers to slice and dice each demographic and attribute of young voter in the 2008 election. Until those data sets arrive, and we can tell a more robust story of engagement, preliminary analysis is consistent with other accolades about this election, not the least of which is its historic nature. More specifically, this election marks a sea change in political engagement among a new generation of Americans — the citizens and leaders of today, not just tomorrow.
(All photography by Rebecca McDonald / B FRESH Photography)
Karlo Barrios Marcelo is a research associate at CIRCLE -- a non-partisan research center that studies civic and political engagement among 15- to 25-year-olds in America. He serves on the advisory board of HeadCount.
Also in Voting and Elections
- Youth in Action: May Boeve, Climate Change Activist by Leanne Shear
- Youth in Action: Carmen Berkley, the United States Student Association by Suemedha Sood
- (Video) Israeli Conscientious Objectors
- Youth in Action: Alex Aronson, The Bus Project by Onnesha Roychoudhuri
- Parties And Questions by KJ Meyer