The Truth About the Youth Vote

Just before midnight EST on election night, the Associated Press moved a story on the wire titled “2004 Not the Breakout Year for Youth Vote After All.” State tallies were still coming in, progressive voters were losing morale and headlines like these were the proverbial icing on the cake for many young organizers.

In a San Jose Mercury News article released the following morning, “Youth Vote is Sign of Hope for the Future” journalist Sue Hutchison responded with anecdotal evidence.

“One look at the throngs of students barely out of their teens who were standing in those lines,” she wrote, “and it was tough to swallow [the] poll that said people ages 18-24 made up fewer than one in 10 voters – about the same as in 2000.”

Hutchinson’s gut response, like that of many voters, organizers and observers, was dead on. The implications of the exit polls were in direct contrast to her experience and, it turns out, they were only part of the story.

Now that some of the smoke has cleared and the data has been crunched, it's clear that 2004 was, in fact, an amazing year for young voter participation. Whereas only 42 percent of 18-29 year-olds had voted in 2000, a whopping 51 percent showed up at the polls this year, making for a 9-point increase. The catch? Everyone else came out in record numbers too.

Hans Reimer, director of Rock the Vote, describes the youth turnout as “exceeding all expectations.” He points out that the percentage of youth who came out to vote this year was four points higher than in 1992, a number he says is “phenomenal.”

“1992 was a similar election” Reimer continues. “There were really sharp issues; there was a candidate who reached out to young people; there was tremendous interest in voting. It was also the first year of the MTV/Rock The Vote effort. Voting was part of the social movement.”

From the looks of many college campuses in swing states this fall, you would have thought that voting was the social movement. And as Mattie Weiss, the Midwest director of the League of Young Voters puts it, this was evident on Tuesday in Minneapolis, Minn.

Voter turnout, she says was “huge.” Minnesota has same-day registration, so there were 80 League volunteers out reminding students and other youth to vote, handing out voter guides and making sure they were prepared.

“We had three shifts planned to go out and make sure people knew what to bring to the polls,” says Weiss. “But we had to change our strategy when, at noon, we discovered that 50-75 percent of the people we were talking to had already voted.”

By the end of the day, the League and the Young Voter Project had spoken to an estimated 100,000 young people. And by 5 p.m., some 70 percent of city residents had cast a vote.
According to CIRCLE, youth turnout was especially high – often as high as 64 percent – in some battleground states. In addition, young voters favored Kerry by a 10 percent margin over George Bush nationally, while in many key states it was even higher. In Pennsylvania, for instance, 32 percent more youth voted for John Kerry than did for Bush.

Kim Teplitzky, a Temple University student who spent the last several months doing GOTV work in Philadelphia, Pa. describes Nov. 2 as “the most active day of my life.”

A lack of campus polling places didn’t keep Temple students from voting. Teplitzky says that, like on many campuses, student organizers were shuttling 20-30 students at a time in vans to the polling places.

“One of our designated polls had the longest lines in Philadelphia. The last person to vote in the city” she adds, ”was a temple student.”

Alex, the Madison-based Rock the Vote Street Team member, writing in the RTV Blog on Tuesday, reported that kids on his campus were calling this the “The Hip Election.”

If that’s the case, and this elections was “hip” it raised larger questions about the future of youth engagement.

Reimer says the challenge now “is to take the issues that young people are voting on and sustain them."

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