Don’t believe the hype about the disappointing youth vote this year.
Even as the polls closed Nov. 2, many pundits, bloggers and reporters were asking what happened to the much ballyhooed young voters who were supposed to turn out in huge numbers, prodded to the polls by MTV, the war in Iraq, frantic college registration drives and a close election. Some considered them a key swing vote that could help push Democratic Sen. John Kerry over the top.
But in the election aftermath, many commentators said that 18- to 29-year-olds were, once again, missing in action.
The truth is, by many measures, young people appeared to have rocked the vote as promised and showed up in large numbers – bigger even than in 1992, the last high mark for turnout among this group, according to widely cited and accepted estimates. It was the biggest turnout since 1972, when the voting age changed to 18 from 21, according to the Center for Information ‘ Research on Civic Learning ‘ Engagement at the University of Maryland.
“Turnout was awesome, to put it simply,” said Adam Alexander, a spokesman for the New Voters Project. “We were hoping to turn out 20 million. And we hit 21 million.”
Researchers at the Center for Information ‘ Research on Civic Learning ‘ Engagement estimate that 4.6 million more people under the age of 30 voted this year as compared to 2000, based on exit polls and early vote total results.
That means that the overall turnout of young people was 51.6 percent, up from 42.3 percent four years ago. In battleground states, it was even higher – at 64 percent.
So why were there so many wild inaccuracies slinging around?
People misinterpreted the numbers, said Carrie Donovan, youth director at the University of Maryland research center. Some news reports said that 10 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds showed up at the polls, when in fact 10 percent of the people interviewed in exit polls were in that age group.
Some election researches have also pointed out that while more 18- to 29-year-olds showed up at the polls, they still made up about the same percentage of the electorate – about 17 percent – as they did four years ago. That’s because more voters of all ages went to the polls this year.
Student organizers in Missouri and Illinois, many of whom had been drumming up excitement and actively registering students for months, were surprised by the erroneous numbers slamming the youth vote.
“We didn’t know where those numbers were coming from,” said Teresa Sullivan, president of the St. Louis chapter of Project Democracy and a senior at Washington University. “The turnout here was really exceptional, from what we saw.”
According to CNN exit polls, voters age 18 to 29 showed up in slightly larger numbers on Tuesday in Kentucky and Ohio as compared to the national average. They made up 19 percent of those who voted in Kentucky, 21 percent in Ohio and 17 percent nationwide.
“What I saw here at Northern (Kentucky University) suggested that students were very interested in the election,” Joan Ferrante, interim director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement, said. “It reflects the national data that shows that there was an increase in student participation.
“I wouldn’t call it dramatic, but I would call it modest. I think one should be happy with those numbers and hope they improve every election period.”
Nationally, young voters were more divided than some had expected. They chose Kerry 54 percent of the time compared to 45 percent for Bush. They were the only age group to prefer Democrats.
Young voters in Kentucky, however, preferred Republicans, choosing Bush 54 percent of the time compared to 45 percent for Kerry.
“(The data) reflects youth who live in a conservative state,” Ferrante said.
Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said he does not trust any numbers circulating about youth turnout, especially since the exit polls nationwide proved to not be very reliable.
Still, he does believe that young people on college campuses substantially increased their turnout in battleground states, where they probably helped make those races closer than they otherwise would have been, he said.
The best information about youth turnout, many experts agree, will come out next year when the Census Bureau releases its population survey that includes voter and registration information.
Ferrante said she believes the Get Out the Vote Campaign that was put on by the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at NKU was successful in encouraging students to participate in the election.
As part of the initiative, the center received a national grant to recruit NKU students as Election Day poll workers. NKU was one of 15 colleges nationwide to receive the federal grant.
Ferrante said she had only anticipated approximately 150 students to apply. By Election Day, 260 students had submitted applications to work as poll workers.
“We’re very happy. It exceeded our expectations,” she said.
Additional reporting by C.J. Fryer for The Northerner.