Two months before the midterm elections, a new analysis of historical midterm election data points to the potential importance of the youth vote in November. Nearly half of the 42 million eligible young voters aged 18 to 29 showed up for the 2004 presidential election, representing the highest level of youth voter participation in more than a decade, but they still remain a largely untapped and misunderstood voting population.
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) compiled data on the midterm cycles nationwide - and by state - since 1974 to get a sense of what the nation might expect this fall. In the most recent midterm election in 2002, 22 percent of young adults voted. However, the best comparison to this year's election may be the 1994 midterm, because it was the last midterm to follow a similar surge in youth voting. In 1994, 26 percent of 18- to 29-year olds voted.
"The increased mobilization efforts to get young people to the polls in 2004 likely contributed to the spike in young voters. The level of mobilization will be lower this year, but probably at least as high as it was in 2002. All political parties should work to mobilize this large group of potential voters," said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE. "We did see additional increases in turnout in student-dense precincts in 2005 local and state elections. And we now know from experimental studies that mobilization in one election still motivates people in the next election."
As for partisanship among young Americans, in a poll CIRCLE conducted this summer, young people were more likely than adults 30 and older to identify as strictly independents (26 percent vs. 18 percent) and less likely to identify as Republicans (28 percent vs. 35 percent). Compared to 2002, somewhat more young adults are identifying as independents (up 2 points) though slightly fewer identify as Democrats (down 1 point).
"State turnout can vary widely depending on the number and intensity of statewide and local elections. For instance, the 2002 national youth voter turnout was 22 percent, but in Minnesota it was 45 percent and only 14 percent in Arizona. With high-profile statewide races this year in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Ohio, for instance, and a number of statewide ballot initiatives, turnout could again vary greatly among the states," said Levine. "We are also watching some interesting trends, including turnout in Illinois, where young Black, non-Hispanic voters have repeatedly been turning out in higher percentages than their White and Latino peers."
"One important factor that policymakers and communities can influence to increase voter turnout in the short run is to change election day and voter registration laws to reduce hurdles to voting," said Mark Lopez, CIRCLE's research director. "For example, extending polling hours, allowing for early voting, or election day registration can each have a significant positive impact on the voter participation of young people. Each of our fact sheets lists the laws currently in place in each state that may affect young voters."
Taking the mystery out of how to capture and mobilize the youth vote, a new report from CIRCLE and Young Voter Strategies analyzes specific get-out-the-vote tactics to uncover what works, what doesn't and what the tactics cost per vote. With more than 40 million young people eligible to vote, the findings should be studied by campaigns, advocates and political pundits.
Among the report's key findings:
"We've heard the complaint from campaigns for years that young people don't vote and aren't easy to reach," said Heather Smith, director of Young Voter Strategies. "What we know is that this generation is paying attention and if you ask them, young people will vote. And if you give them useful and relevant information in a personal way, they will be even more likely to vote."
CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) promotes research on the civic and political engagement of Americans between the ages of 15 and 25. Since 2001, CIRCLE has conducted, collected, and funded research on the civic and political participation of young Americans. CIRCLE is based in the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Carnegie Corporation of New York.