With Election Day approaching, student and political leaders discuss the importance of the youth vote.
Tyler Hercules said he remembers waking up early the morning of Nov. 4, 2008 to vote with his mother. He said his first election was not just about voting – to Hercules, he was participating in a major event.
“Walking with [my mother] to the polls, the excitement we both were feeling was hard to contain,” said Hercules, a junior political science and psychology major. “I felt a sense of pride that I was doing my civic duty.”
“It was a good feeling to take our country in a different direction than it had been for the past eight years,” Hercules added.
But the enthusiasm Hercules expressed for the 2008 presidential election is lagging on a larger scale, especially for youth voters, according to Project Vote, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works on voter mobility.
The nonprofit’s 2009 report on voter participation in the 2008 elections found young people made up 21 percent of the eligible voter population, yet voters ages 18-29 accounted for only 17 percent of the actual voting population for the presidential election. According to Project Vote’s report, 21 million citizens under the age of 30 did not vote in the November 2008 election.
Despite these numbers, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that the approximate 21 million voters under 30 marked an increase in youth-voter turnout by at least 2.2 million since 2004.
“Given all the effort invested on both sides to get young people to vote in 2008, I think turnout didn’t go up very much at all,” said Michael Hagen, an associate professor and graduate chair of political science. “It just seemed to fizzle out.”
Lack of Emphasis
Temple College Democrats President Abigail Shepherd said Organize for America, President Barack Obama’s political campaigning machine, has not given TCD the final number of voters the student organization registered by the Oct. 4 deadline. Shepherd, a senior political science major, said the last she heard, TCD registered more than 500 students.
“I was surprised when people would come up to our table [to register] and didn’t realize there were elections coming up,” Shepherd said. “As soon as we explained to them how it affected them and Temple, they were really receptive to it.”
“If it’s not a presidential election, a lot of people forget about it or don’t take their vote into account,” she added. “It’s such a small percentage of voters who actually turn out for the [local] primary or midterm elections.”
Temple College Republicans President William Rennie, a senior finance and risk management and insurance major, said TCR tries to have voter registration forms on hand when its members table at events.
The smaller turnout was due to a lack of awareness about the stakes in this election, but voters knew about the stakes in 2008 because of the national hype that comes with presidential elections, Rennie said.
“Youth tend to have a democratic leaning, and in the [presidential] election, the [Democrats] had Obama, who was a great public speaker, and no one can deny that,” Rennie said.
The day after the Nov. 3, 2009 elections, WHYY reported that Philadelphia had a turnout of about 12 percent, one-fifth of the 2008 turnout.
Erik Jacobs, a sophomore economics major, said the problem is that local elections aren’t as interesting to the average citizen.
“People tend to get wrapped up in the national and gubernatorial elections when they need to concentrate on the local elections just as much,” Jacobs said.
“Primary and local-level elections are as important as federal and state-level elections, because we have greater power to dictate policy at the local level than at the national level,” he added.
Hagen said voter turnout also depends on campaign tactics, such as the 2008 Obama campaign’s marketing toward the mobilization of younger voters.
“Young people were targeted to a degree that was pretty unusual,” Hagen said. “Young people are people, too, and just like everyone else, they are more likely to get swept up in the cycle and excitement of a presidential year because those elections are much more visible than congressional elections.”
“In 2008, you couldn’t turn on the television or walk down the street without seeing something about the [presidential] election,” Shepherd said.
Hercules, despite his strong enthusiasm, did not vote in the Nov. 3, 2009 municipal elections.
“I do not attend college in my home state, and I did not change my voter registration, nor did I vote absentee. Like some college students, I was unaware of the procedures to go about voting in a state that is not your home state,” he said, adding that this is one of the structural problems in the registration and voting process that affects turnout.
“There are some pretty clear and straightforward reasons for people to not be likely to register and vote like other people,” Hercules said. “They haven’t developed a habit for voting, [and] they don’t see themselves as having a big stake [in the outcomes].”
“Young people are more mobile than older people, so they’re more likely to change their address, and having to change your address [to vote] when you move is another hurdle,” Hagen added.
Hagen said the simple act of registering tends to be a burden on individuals, as well.
“Lowering the hurdles, making it easy for people to register, reducing the amount of time before the election that people have to register and for many states like Pennsylvania, allowing people to register without any indication to a party preference” are all ways to increase rates of voter registration, he said.
Rennie suggested moving registration to the Web.
“If there was an online way to register, more people would probably register to vote,” he said. “Although, that doesn’t necessarily mean more people would be voting.”
Other democratic countries and regions have alternative ways to register citizens, which can lead to higher rates of voter registration, Hagen said. For instance, the United Kingdom, he said, employs government workers to knock on doors and ask questions to get citizens to vote.
Hagen said he thinks many young people are disenchanted, to a certain degree, that their choice is limited to two parties.
“A lot of people don’t feel like their vote means anything. People have kind of lost faith in politicians and government as a whole,” Shepherd said. “News picks up on more sensational stories, like [candidates or incumbents] speaking out of context, so people who watch or read it don’t feel a connection to government officials.”
“It’s also hard to get people to vote on a Tuesday when you have work or classes,” she added.
“I think it’s fixable in some sense, and it still goes back to the issue of people not caring and not seeing life out of a narrow view, especially if they live at home,” Rennie said.
What’s at Stake
Jacobs said he is really looking forward to senatorial and gubernatorial elections on Nov. 2. As a Republican, he said the outcome, particularly that of the gubernatorial race, will dictate state policy for the next four years.
“We can redistrict the U.S. House and State Assembly districts to make it favorable for the Republican Party,” he said.
Redistricting, which occurs every 10 years, will go to the victor. Shepherd said gerrymandering, a form of redistricting or boundary modification, can allow the winning party to form districts that have a strong party-leanings.
“If Republicans win this year, they can call the shots,” she said.
Redistricting aside, Jacobs said important issues to him include the economy and immigration, for which he favors a strict policy.
“The economy comes first and foremost for me in the upcoming election, and I am voting because I want to send a message to Washington that the reckless spending, the Obama health care plan and bailouts need to stop,” Jacobs said.
Shepherd said appropriations, which determine funding for Temple, should be a concern for student-voters.
“Some people forget that Republican State Rep. John Taylor was bitter about Temple closing a hospital and stalled [the appropriations] bill,” she said. “If it happened, Temple’s tuition could have gone up 11 percent … but it didn’t, thanks to many people at Temple.”
Hagen said the outcome of the midterm elections is tied to the future.
“A lot of what happens in 2012 will depend on what happens between now and then,” he said. “I don’t see a reason Obama wouldn’t be a candidate for 2012. Who knows who Republicans are going to choose.”
Jacobs said everyone 18-and-older has a duty to vote.
“If you are of voting age and don’t vote, you have no right to complain about the situation an election creates,” he said.
Josh Fernandez can be reached at email@example.com.