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October 8, 2010

the youth vote in 2010: what would success look like?

Cathy Cohen, a distinguished political scientist at University of Chicago and the PI of the Black Youth Project, writes:

She concludes: "If these young people don’t come out to vote, the Democratic Party will have only itself to blame. Instead of harnessing the energy of young voters across the board, particularly black ones, and nurturing their political momentum, President Obama and his party ignored them once the election was over."

As we approach the 2010 election, one way to think about youth participation is by looking at the trend in previous midterm elections.

The last midterm vote was in 2006. That year, youth turnout reached 25.5%, up for the second cycle in a row. (Young African Americans, by the way, slightly beat young whites and all other ethnic groups in turnout that year.) So we could set 25% as the baseline for youth turnout and declare success if 2010 sets a higher mark, which remains possible. If we keep seeing upward progress of, say, two points every four years, then we could reach 50% turnout by the year 2060. (Although I will be 93 then if I'm lucky enough to live so long.)

Another way to look at this issue is the way Cathy does. We should have much better turnout. In the 1800s, more than 90% of eligible voters outside the South voted in some years, a rate that remains common in many other democracies. What would it take to move us from our current rate to an acceptable one? I'd advocate for political reform, but some kind of transformational event could also help.

Now imagine that a presidential candidate recognizes the potential of a diverse and energized young population to exercise political power. He develops a powerful bond with them and offers them exciting ways to engage with his campaign. More than half of eligible young voters turn out, and two thirds of those vote for him. He wins, thanks, in significant measure, to their support.

This sounds like the basis of a generational transformation. And yet two years later, we are asking whether youth turnout will rise to 27% or fall to 22% or 23%. It is not too soon to ask Cathy Cohen's critical questions about the responsibility of our political leaders for missing a remarkable opportunity.

October 8, 2010 1:35 PM | category: none



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