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Election Focus 2004

Youth Voting and the 2004 Election

Mark Hugo Lopez, Research Director at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), and a Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, spoke to Washington File staff writer Alexandra Abboud about Youth Voting and the 2004 Presidential Election.

Q: How Important is the youth vote in the United States today?

LOPEZ:Young voters represent about 18-20 million votes, depending on what age group we’re looking at, and that’s a tremendous number of votes. In 1992, about 20 million young people between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out to vote. And in the 2000 election, about18 million young voters participated in the election.

That represents a swing of about two million people. Youth voter mobilization campaigns such as Rock the Vote and the World Wrestling Entertainment Group’s Smackdown Your Vote! campaign, are all pushing to get another two million young people to vote in the 2004 election over the 2000 election. That number would equal the number of youths that voted in 1992 and could also be enough votes to swing an election. And so you will probably hear a lot of organizations talking about the impact, or the potential impact that young people could have, because they do represent a large group. They can swing elections if they're mobilized and therefore, a lot of organizations are trying to mobilize young people to get involved.

Q: The voting age in the United States was lowered 18 years of age with the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1971. Have young voters been taking advantage of this right to vote since then?

LOPEZ:Youth voter turnout among 18 to 25 year olds since 1972 — the first presidential election where young people between 18 and 20 could vote — was at about 50-55 percent. Since then, it’s steadily dropped by 13 percentage points. The only exception was the 1992 presidential election where there was a huge spike in voter turnout among young people. In 1992, the youth voter turnout almost matched that of 1972.

Q: What was the reason for the spike in youth voting in the 1992 election?

LOPEZ: There are several possible reasons for the upward spike in 1992. Perhaps the two most obvious reasons are first, the election was a contested election and second, because there were three candidates running — Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and George Bush — young voters felt like they had a diverse choice in candidates.

A lot of pollsters that I’ve talked to have suggested that having an independent candidate actually tends to bring out young people more. And this is important, because we know that about a third of all young people are independents.

Q: Are there any indications that the decline in youth voter turnout is reversing?

LOPEZ: We were hoping to see some indication that youth voter turnout was rising this year in early Democratic primaries; however, there is mixed evidence that youth voter turnout will be up this year. While more young people participated in the Democratic primaries this year than they did in 2000, this year there was no contested Republican primary. So, overall, in 2000, more people voted in both the Democratic and Republican primaries than have voted in just the Democratic primaries this year. Therefore, it’s misleading to say that voter turnout is up, just because the Democratic numbers are up. This is particularly a problem in states where Independents can vote in eithe rthe democratic or republican primary or both.

Q: You’ve mentioned organizations such as Rock the Vote that have programs to register young voters and engage them in the political process. Are these programs effective?

LOPEZ: I think that it is difficult to measure the success of these groups. However, they tend to register a lot of young people for the first time, and they also tend to register young people in places where young people are clustered, such as colleges.

I don’t think we have enough research to tell how effective they are, but my sense is that they can be

Q: For those young people who do vote, what influenced them to vote and what influences who they vote for?

Most of the young people who vote tend to be college educated, and they tend to come from families where the parents discussed politics with them, and they tend to come from places which generally had stronger civic education programs.
Also, young voters are more likely to be white or black, and less likely to be Hispanic. And in recent elections, they’re more likely to be female than male.

However, there’s a sizeable chunk of young people who just are not engaged, and many are non-college educated. And today, those non-college youth don’t have the paths to engagement they used to have such as labor union membership, which was
a traditional path towards engagement among non-college youth.

In contrast, college students are concentrated in one place, usually on campus, and these organizations that we were just talking about go to the colleges. The non-college youth are dispersed with no central place to go.

In terms of influences on those young people who do vote, we know that they tend to vote a lot like their parents. College students will generally tend to be more liberal and
non-college students will generally tend to be more conservative.

Q: The Internet has played an important role in the election thus far. How important is the Internet in engaging young voters?

We’ve found in our own surveys here at CIRCLE that campaigns can try to reach out to young people with different technologies. There are many more technologies available today than there were in 2000. The Internet plays a large part in that. But we have found that young people oftentimes are turned off by a lot of
these technologies, some of which include things like text messaging on your cell phone or receiving email updates.

We found young people were very turned off, for example, by receiving a text message from a candidate with an update on the campaign. They also do not like Spam mail from candidates. However, anything that they can opt into, like receiving weekly e-mail updates from a candidate, they tend to like.

CIRCLE has funded a research project, which looks at whether or not sending a non-partisan e-mail to encourage young people to register, and encouraging them to vote would actually impact the voter turnout and voter registration rates of young people in
colleges. A lot of students just threw it away and didn't even read it. For those who did read it, it doesn’t appear to have had any impact on their propensity to vote, or their propensity to register to vote. So, I think the Internet is a mixed story. I think it’s another medium, it has a lot of potential, but candidates have to be careful about how they use it, because they could end up turning off potential voters.

Q: Both Republicans and Democrats are reaching out to Latino voters with Spanish Language campaign ads and by other methods. Are the political parties
reaching Latino youth?

No, Latino youth are actually, among all youth, more likely to say things like “Candidates don’t come to my community, candidates don’t talk to people like me,
candidates would rather talk to wealthier, older voters than me.” They're more likely to say that than their young white or black counterparts. And generally speaking, a large
minority of young people feel like candidates don't pay attention to them.

Young Latino voters are the ones who are most likely to feel that the political candidates don’t pay attention to their concerns, or to their issues. So, it’s quite interesting that, yes, the parties are reaching out to Latinos, but I think they’re reaching out to the older Latino voter than the younger Latino voter.


Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE)
CIRCLE promotes research on the civic and political engagement of Americans between the ages of 15 and 25. It is based in the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs.

It is estimated that the youth vote in the United States includes 30 million 18-to-30-year-olds throughout the country. However, despite their large numbers, young voters accounted for less than 4 percent of the entire voting population in the 2000 elections.

Mindful of the untapped potential of young voters, a number of non-governmental organizations and political groups are working actively to encourage their civic participation. Many of these organizations define themselves as non-partisan, that is, not belonging to or supporting any political party. Others, however, may promote a particular political agenda. Following is a sample of the more prominent organizations that seek to mobilize young voters.

Declare Yourself
Declare Yourself is a national non-partisan, non-profit campaign to mobilize young voters to participate in the 2004 presidential election. Declare Yourself is sponsoring a live spoken word and music tour of college campuses; a nationwide voter education initiative for high school seniors; a comprehensive election information Web site; an
extensive online awareness campaign; a massive voter registration drive; a televised “get out the vote” concert; and public service announcements.

The New Voters Project
The New Voters Project is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to
increasing voter turnout among citizens age 18-24 on Election Day 2004. The Project’s goal is to register more than 265,000 voters on college campuses and other youth venues. It is concentrating its efforts on six U.S. states — Colorado, Iowa, Oregon, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Nevada — states that have high concentrations of young voters in small geographic areas.

The College Republican National Committee
The College Republican National Committee is the nationwide coordinating organization for the Republican youth movement. With over 120,000 members on 1,148 college campuses, the Committee works for the election of Republican candidates and the communication of a conservative message to college students.

Young Democrats of America
The Young Democrats of America is the official youth arm of the Democratic Party and is open to anyone under the age of 36 who affiliates themselves with the Democratic
Party. The 43,