« "the predatory lending association" | Main | expertise in education »

February 15, 2008

why are young people voting

Because we calculate the youth turnout rate, we at CIRCLE are getting many press calls every day. We have shown that youth turnout is up dramatically--by a factor of three or four in many states. The main question is: Why?

The answer is not simply Senator Obama, because Senator Clinton has won the youth vote in several states (California, Arizona, and Massachusetts), and about one third of young voters have participated in the Republican primaries. That means that Senator Obama has received less than half of all young votes.

I am boiling down my answer to two parts: the kids and the candidates. The "kids," i.e., people now between 17 and 25 years of age, are somewhat different from their recent predecessors. If you want quantitative evidence of this change, the best single fact is the rapid rise in the volunteering rate. If you want qualitative context, I recommend our Millennials Talk Politics report. Either way, there is plenty of evidence that young people are concerned, idealistic, and aware of at least some social issues. If they volunteer at a homeless shelter, for instance, they recognize homelessness as a problem.

This does not mean that they are sold on voting and politics as solutions to social problems. One student told us in a focus group, "I have voted every time I’ve been given an opportunity, but I do it more as a symbolic gesture than an actual means of changing something." This was a common view. Still, students are ready to hear a pitch that a given campaign or candidate might be worth supporting as a way of addressing problems.

Which brings me to the candidates. They are making the pitch--literally contacting young people through grassroots organizing and by making high-profile visits, and arguing that elections can affect social issues. Obama, Huckabee, and Chelsea Clinton have all personally appeared on our campus. It may seem obvious that politicians would campaign to get young votes. However, in the 1990s, there was such strong conventional wisdom that young people didn't vote that often young citizens were literally deleted from contact lists.

When I mention the rising volunteering rate, sometimes reporters and others ask me whether this isn't simply a function of mandates. Some schools require community service; many colleges seem to value it in applications. These are valid explanations for the increasing rate of volunteering, but they don't negate its importance. For young people, experiences tend to cause attitudes, rather than the reverse. Providing incentives and opportunities for service is likely to change what young people value.

February 15, 2008 10:25 AM | category: none


Peter, it is wonderful to see such engagement among young voters this year, for whatever reason. Here's hoping it lasts into the fall and beyond.

Did you happen to hear about the 1000 students from Prairie View A & M University who marched SEVEN MILES this week to protest the lack of early voting locations in their county? I wrote it up at DemocracySpace (and linked to your latest piece here).


February 22, 2008 2:00 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Julie Fanselow

Julie, I did see a clip about this story, but thanks for your commentary.

February 22, 2008 2:55 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

Site Meter