Background on the Youth Vote

The 2008 Election

The good news

In a Fact Sheet on the Youth Vote in 2008, The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) reported that an estimated 22 million young Americans under the age of 30 voted in the 2008 presidential election, two million more voters than in the 2004. The youth voter turnout rose to 51 percent, an increase of two percentage points from 2004. Compared to 2000, the increase in youth turnout is 11 percentage points. The 2008 election marked the third highest turnout rate among young people since the voting age was lowered to 18 [in 1971]. While young people increased their turnout significantly, older adults voted at lower rates than in 2004 and only slightly above their 2000 level.

While overall youth turnout was high in the 2008 presidential election, there were important differences in turnout rates. Young African Americans posted the highest turnout rate ever observed for any racial or ethnic group of young Americans since 1972. The gap in turnout by educational attainment remained large; voter turnout of young people without college experience was 36 percent, compared to a 62 percent rate among young people with college experience. (About half of the young adult population has some college experience.) There was also a significant gender gap in turnout: young women voted at a rate eight points above young men.

Like their turnout and volume of votes cast, young voters’ age 18-24 electoral share grew significantly in 2004—from 7.8 to 9.3 percent—representing their largest share of the electorate since 1984, when they represented 11.2 percent of the total votes cast.

Among the states that had sufficiently large and reliable samples, youth voter turnout was highest in 2008 in Minnesota (68 percent), Iowa (63 percent), New Hampshire (62 percent) and Oregon (59 percent). Voter turnout in 2008 was lowest in Hawaii (31 percent), Arkansas (35 percent), Utah (37 percent), and Texas (39 percent). For the most part, in each state, voter turnout among those age 30 and above was at least 10 percentage points higher than turnout among 18-to-29 year-olds. However, in Iowa, Minnesota, and West Virginia, the gap between youth and adult turnout rates were less than 10 percentage points.

The not-so-good news

Though 21 percent of the eligible voter population, voters 18-29 made up only 17 percent of the actual voting population in 2008 researchers at Project Vote report in a 2010 policy paper.

Approximately 21 million citizens under the age of 30 did not vote in 2008. If younger citizens had voted at the same rate as those aged 30 and over, 7 million more people would have cast ballots in the election.

As of November 2008, fewer than half (49 percent) of the 3.7 million 18-year-old citizens were registered to vote, a rate 22 points lower than the general population. In 2008, non-white or Latino 18-year-old citizens were registered to vote at a rate six percentage points behind their white counterparts, 51 percent of whom are registered.


Youth Franchise: Challenges and Opportunities

Not surprising, various state policies positively or negatively affect young voters and their ability to exercise their right to vote. Many of the same barriers that minority and low-income voters face at the polls also disproportionately affect young voters. Voter participation in all three groups appears to be affected by high geographic mobility rates, which in turn affect how frequently voters must update their voter registration information and identification. Between 2007 and 2008, 18-29 year olds changed residences at a rate as high as 25 percent, 16 percentage points more than that of the general population, according to Project Vote’s analysis of the November 2008 Current Population Survey Voting and Registration Supplement. Like other highly mobile groups, young people are more susceptible to being disenfranchised due to strict voter identification requirements, irregular provisional ballot counting procedures, and lawed list maintenance practices.

High school voter registration programs could increase 18-year-olds’ overall registration rate and improve youth participation in elections. There are an estimated 3.8 million 18-year-old citizens in the United States. If registered at the same rate as the general U.S. population (71 percent), there would have been more than 830,000 additional 18-year-old registered voters as of November 2008.

Preregistration programs targeting 16- and 17-year-old citizens hold promise, too. They not only help to increase civic participation among young people, but also enfranchise a broader range of America’s youth, particularly those from historically underrepresented populations. Empowering this untapped pool of future voters can help reduce historical disparities in the electorate for future generations with just a simple, inexpensive adjustment in the administration of elections.

See also “Best Practices for Implementing Effective High School Voter Registration Programs,” Project Vote, September 2010.


Voting Patterns

The strongest predictor of whether a person will vote is whether or not they have voted before. Studies show that voting becomes habitual and that once someone votes for the first time, he or she is much more likely to vote in the future. For example, one survey found that among voters who voted in 1968 and 1972 only 3 percent failed to vote in 1974 and 1976. Among respondents who missed voting in the earlier elections, more than two-thirds did not vote in the following election. Winning young voters the first time pays dividends for years to come. (“Youth Vote 2008: Issue Brief," The Century Foundation.)

Party identification develops in early adulthood, and the youth voting years are crucial. Several studies and electoral history show that partisanship develops in early adulthood—the youth vote years. Young adults are more likely than older adults to identify as Independent, a commonsense situation for a group of voters new to politics. Historically, about one-third of young adults identify as Independent. In “A Guide to Reaching Young Voters: Are You Talking to Me?," students at Harvard's Kennedy School reported that just over 50 percent of college frehsmen nationwde said they considered themselves “middle-of-the-road.” Self-identified liberals and those on the far left (27 percent) slightly outnumbered conservatives and those on the far right (22.7 percent).

The “impressionable years” hypothesis seems to ring true when it comes to young voters: the political beliefs of young adults’ appear to be less formed and stable than older adults and, therefore, open to outreach from political parties, interest groups, and others. A 2007 report by Rock the Vote conclucdes that partisanship is a lifelong loyalty that develops early. Studies also clarify that this is an aging, not a period, effect: after youth reach their thirties, their attitudes become as stable as their parents’.


Courting the Youth Vote

Young people get their news online. In 2010 the Internet passed television as the major source of news for those under 30: 64 percent said the Internet is their main news source, up from just 34 percent in 2007. Only a third of young people get their news from cable TV, and that number is dropping every year. Even fewer watch broadcast news. (Pew Research Center, 2010)

Research suggests that online political activity is a robust predictor of offline political participation, and this trend holds across racial and ethnic groups. Visiting a candidate’s website, reading or responding to a political blog, using social networking sites to discuss politic—all spur political participation. The high rates of online engagement among young voters hold significant promise for furthering their overall political participation. Among young blacks and Latinos, in particular, online activity promotes participation rates equal to that of whites. (“Plugged In or Tuned Out? Youth, Race, and Internet Usage in the 2008 Election”)

Courting the youth vote makes financial sense for individual campaigns. When engaged, young people are eager to volunteer their time and energy to campaigns for little or no monetary compensation. Once trained, they can be mobilized to work phone banks or canvass door-to-door, providing the personal contacts with their peers that are essential for engaging more young people in the elections. Several studies also suggest that politically active peers are by far the most effective recruiters. (“Youth Vote 2008: Issue Brief," The Century Foundation )


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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator