CIRCLE of Facts and Figures (Spring 2007 Trust Magazine article)

  • May 20, 2007
  • By Sandra Salmans

Coinciding with the seismic shift in political fortunes following last fall's midterm elections was another change that, of its kind, was potentially more momentous: a massive surge in voting by young people. An estimated 10 million Americans under the age of 30 voted, an increase of at least two million over the number who cast ballots in the 2002 midterm elections.

Young adults accounted for 13 percent of all votes cast, compared with 11 percent in 2002. In fact, the youth turnout was perhaps the largest for a midterm election since 1982, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland.

And CIRCLE, which the Pew Trusts launched in 2001 and which now has support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, ought to know. Scrupulously nonpartisan, CIRCLE was founded to conduct, sponsor, evaluate and promote research on civic involvement by the approximately 30 million Americans who are between the ages of 15 and 25 in a variety of civic and political activities—behaviors that can range from simply following current events to volunteering to participating in school government to voting in local, state and national elections and possibly entering politics.

Prior to CIRCLE, the civic engagement of young people “was a remarkably under-studied area,” says William A. Galston, Ph.D., CIRCLE's first director and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Because it is as teens and young adults that most of us learn the civic behaviors that we display for the rest of our lives, “it struck me that much more needed to be known,” he points out, “and that, if we knew more, we could in all probability foster civic engagement more effectively.”

The need to know was particularly urgent because civic engagement by many measures had fallen to appallingly low levels. The voting age in the United States was lowered to 18 in 1970, and in the subsequent presidential election of 1972, the turnout of young voters began promisingly when 55 percent of those under 30 cast ballots. But the percentages fell steadily over the next 30 years.

In addition, Robert D. Putnam's 1995 book Bowling Alone raised the image of a fading national and community spirit, leading to declining civic participation—a thesis that had “surprising public salience,” said Galston and a colleague, Peter Levine, Ph.D., in a 1997 article.

Levine has been with CIRCLE from the start and now serves as its director. “We were designed to create a new field—civic development—which draws on psychology and creates a bridge between theory and practice,” he notes.

Although the center “conducts and funds research, not practice,” its Web site points out, “the projects that we support have practical implications for those who work to increase young people's engagement in politics and civic life.”

CIRCLE has seeded the field by funding research by such Pew-supported groups as Young Voter Strategies at George Washington University and the New Voters Project, a partnership between George Washington University and the student Public Interest Research Groups. CIRCLE is the research advisory arm to projects on the ground. Says Galston, “We sent emissaries to talk with these organizations, to clarify the links between academic research and practice.”

And the organization supports academic scholars, who have produced more than 50 research working papers on topics ranging from the effects of state laws on young-adult voting to the role of sports in developing the character of young people. Carrying the idea of civic engagement to its logical extension, it adopted a young staffer's suggestion and sponsored a grant competition in which teenagers designed their own research projects to help them better understand the nature of their schools and the best ways to get engaged.

CIRCLE disseminates the findings of its reports, working papers and fact sheets through conferences, a quarterly newsletter, regular e-mail alerts to interested journalists, policy makers and practitioners, and its Web site, where it also places its data sets so that others may analyze and check the conclusions.

The project's major areas of investigation are:

Civic engagement index. Every two years—in 2002, 2004 and 2006— CIRCLE has compiled a “civic engagement index,” a comprehensive national survey using 19 possible forms of participation to measure the extent to which young Americans take part in politics and communities. “We have challenged people's thinking about youth civic engagement by helping to develop, refine and apply a wide array of measures, going well beyond volunteering and voting,” notes Levine.

Among the thought-provoking findings of last year's study:

  • Young Americans are involved in many forms of political and civic activity—a finding that confounds the conventional wisdom that most of them are apathetic.

    For instance, 30 percent said they had boycotted a product because of the conditions under which it was made or the values of the company that made it.

    Nevertheless, a considerable proportion of this age group were not particularly engaged, including 17 percent who had not participated than their elders, although the margins have declined since 2002.

  • Young people have lost confidence in government. Two-thirds of them believe that government should do more to solve problems, but a plurality, no matter which political party they identify with, are also more likely than they were in 2002 to say that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.

    On the other hand, young people who are more engaged in their communities have more positive views of government than those who are less involved.

  • Types of civic engagement vary widely with race and ethnicity. Young African Americans are the most politically engaged racial or the Bush administration.

Levine, who oversaw the project, notes that it “sharpened the policy debate about civic education by demonstrating that the standard interventions, such as social science classes, actually work but are in decline” as a result of schools' fear of controversy, emphasis on testing and budget cutbacks. The report recommended that schools establish civic-education curricula, incorporate discussions of current events into the classroom and encourage students to participate in community service and in school governance.

Levine himself puts this into practice. He works with Maryland high school students on a community-oriented Web site. Further, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, a project of the Council for Excellence in Government, is promoting the report's recommendations.

In a separate finding that could bolster the case for civic education, CIRCLE's research is beginning to demonstrate that investments in civic opportunities for young people pay off for society as a whole. For example, teenagers are more likely to complete school if they are given service-learning opportunities. A working paper commissioned by CIRCLE found that, whatever their socioeconomic status, students participating in civic activities were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than other students.

Other CIRCLE research indicates that the connection works two ways: Better-educated people are more likely to engage in civic activities. CIRCLE provided the data for the National Conference on Citizenship's 2006 report Broken Promises, which noted that college graduates outnumber college dropouts in civic participation, and high school dropouts even more.

Youth voting. The 2004 presidential election brought a new level of attention to CIRCLE's data and analysis, resulting in high-profile stories in major newspapers.

On election night, the Associated Press ran a misleading story claiming that the youth vote had again fallen short, even though a record 20.9 million of this group had voted. It seems that AP had simply not compared the percentage of youth who had voted to the overall turnout rate, which was also high.

By early the next morning, CIRCLE had provided journalists and advocates with data showing that, to the contrary, youth turnout was up dramatically. Not only had 4.6 million more young people voted than in 2000, but the percentage of 18-to-29- year-olds who voted was 51 percent, up from 42.3 percent in 2000.

This accurate and timely revision helped prove the value of CIRCLE's research and confirm its place as the most reliable source on youth voting statistics for the media, academics and policy makers.

From the first, CIRCLE has also played an important role in disseminating the groundbreaking research by Donald Green, Ph.D., and Alan Gerber, Ph.D., two Yale political science professors, into what techniques are most effective in encouraging young people to vote. Their finding: Oldfashioned, shoe-leather, door-to-door campaigning still works best, compared to robotic phone calls, recorded messages automatically dialed.

It's paradoxical, Galston notes: Having grown up in a media-saturated environment, teens ought to be receptive to the impersonal “robo-calls,” but in fact, possibly because they are inured to technology, this kind of solicitation does not work.

To further help reverse the downward trend in youth voting, CIRCLE and Young Voter Strategies collaborated on a 2006 booklet, Young Voter Mobilization Tactics, in which they compiled the most recent research on turnout tactics, including:

  • Personalized and interactive contact counts. Studies have found that it does not matter whether the message is partisan or nonpartisan, positive or negative. Rather, “quality contact” matters.    
  • Begin with the basics. Young people need nuts-and-bolts practical information on how to vote.    
  • In ethnic and immigrant communities, start young. Young people are cost-effective targets, particularly because there is less need than with their elders to translate campaign materials into a different language.    
  • Initial mobilization produces repeat voters. Educating young people about voting today will result in long-term benefits.    
  • Leaving young voters off contact lists is a costly mistake. Young people are just as responsive to solicitation as older voters.

Of course, not every candidate got the message in time, and robo-calls still flooded into homes. Still, there are signs that both political parties are returning to more personal campaigning. For example, Charlie Crist, Florida's new governor, organized grassroots voter groups at colleges, and Sherrod Brown, Ohio's new senator, ran a grassroots campaign that reached out to his party's voters of all ages.

Levine thinks that the turnout in 2006 was due partly to greater efforts by both parties, inspired in part by research, to mobilize young people. While 2004 was a good year, he says, “2006 seems to have stopped the hemorrhaging.”

And CIRCLE's role? Levine credits it for broadly “changing the stereotype of young people as slackers.” There is certainly an appetite for the information, and the project's data are trusted by organizations involved in registering nonvoters—and by the media. CIRCLE is “considered the pre-eminent authority on young people and politics,” said Rolling Stone, one of the premier youth-oriented magazines— which ought to know.