The Youth Vote: Why Bother?

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Maybe trying to get more young people to vote isn’t worth the trouble.

Blasphemy? Certainly to the tens of millions of American adults who see voting as the cornerstone of democracy, as the most fundamental act for anyone who gives a damn. But despite being courted by tens of millions of dollars worth of rallies, phone calls, door-to-door campaigns, ads and voter guides, despite being wooed by stars like rapper LL Cool J and Chyna the wrestler, most of America’s young people still think voting is useless.

It’s not that they’re unswayed by the “good citizen” pitch. The problem is, America’s young people appear civicly conflicted.

They distinguish themselves through community service, exhibit a save-the-world idealism, express strong views to pollsters on public issues and were roused to action by the Sept. 11 attacks.

But ever since 18-year-olds were first allowed to vote nationally in 1972, 18- to 24-year-olds have found voting so irrelevant that they do it far less than any other age group. Their voting rates have dropped in every presidential election, from 50 percent that first year to 32 percent in 2000, a year of perhaps unprecedented efforts to get them to the polls. (Figures for 2002 are not yet available.)

“Despite holding strong opinions on many of the issues in the upcoming election,” a Kaiser Family Foundation survey said before the 2000 vote, for most young people “the connection hasn’t been made between voting and what happens on the issues they care most about.”

So what do you have to do, knock on their doors and badger them face-to-face?

Um, yes.

Amid all the tactics that foundations and community organizations tried in 2000 and 2001 to nudge young adults toward the polls, one concept stood out as having the most potential: one-on-one contact. In some communities, the gains were more than 10 percent.

So funders such as Pew Charitable Trusts and activists such as the Black Youth Vote! Coalition pumped up that strategy more than ever this year, building teams in Boston; Little Rock, Ark.; Oakland, Calif.; and other cities to visit hundreds of homes, make thousands of phone calls and send half a million e-mails.

“The question is not: Can you get young people to vote?” declares Pew Public Policy Director Michael Delli Carpini, whose Philadelphia foundation has spent more than anyone – an estimated $20 million – on youth vote efforts from mid-1999 through 2002. “We’ve answered that question.”

It’s an expensive answer.

A Yale study of Pew’s direct get-out-the-vote efforts found that they cost $12 to $20 for each vote generated. Increasing young voter turnout by 500,000 would cost $6 million to $10 million, the study said.

And it’s hard to find a more time-consuming, labor-intensive strategy for reaching voters than canvassing. While some cities, such as Miami, had no trouble fielding canvassers this year, St. Louis organizers struggled to find enough people and make sure they knocked on all the doors. One coordinator says some of them came back from their rounds drunk.

Could it work on a national scale? “It’s very difficult … but I think it could be done,” says Donald P. Green, who directs Yale University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies and co-authored studies of the Pew-funded campaigns.

But maybe youth vote advocates are trying to move a segment of the young population to a place it just doesn’t want to go. While many Americans are turned off by having to wait for the impact (if any) of their votes, young people seem especially unwilling to tolerate such delayed gratification or to risk wasting their time voting for someone who loses.

Young adults (ages 18 to 24) consistently tell pollsters that, as a Kaiser survey found in 2000, they “can make more of a difference getting involved in their community than voting.” The reason was spelled out in a Youth Vote Coalition poll this spring of 2,000 young adults, who also rated volunteering as more important:

Young adults like to see the “immediate impact of their work,” said the report by Lake Snell Perry & Associates. “On the other hand, voting requires young adults to elect someone and wait for an elected official to accomplish something on a specific issue or cause when they often do not follow through on their promises.”

So while many hip hop artists have joined the movement to get youth more involved in the political process, artist Boots Riley echoed the view of many young people when he told The Washington Post in June, “Voting is the lowest form of political action you can do. A lot of times it keeps people from doing stronger things. We’re told, ‘If you want to change the world, vote.’ And really, if you want to change the world, there’s a lot more things that you can do.”

The Last Time They Tried This …

It took some guts for youth voting advocates to knock on doors in Raleigh, N.C., this fall urging young people to vote. After all, when canvassers showed up here in 2000, one Yale study said, many whites refused to open their doors for blacks, two of whom were “expelled” from the neighborhood. White canvassers were stopped and quizzed by police, who suspected them of being white supremacists out to stir up trouble.

But this year the Youth Vote Coalition came knocking again in Raleigh and 11 other metropolitan areas, funded primarily by Pew and teamed with community-based organizations that provided phones, meeting space and volunteers. (The Ewing Marion Kauffman and the John S. and James L. Knight foundations also contributed.) The partners ranged from local affiliates of the Black Youth Vote Coalition (part of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation) and Public Interest Research Groups to the Indianhead Council of the Boy Scouts of America (St. Paul, Minn.) and the Young Communist League (St. Louis).

“They just showed up” to volunteer, laughs 22-year-old Jodi Ritter, host for the St. Louis coalition staff.

The extra emphasis this year on one-on-one contact with young voters was based on evidence from the Youth Vote Coalition’s predecessor, Youth Vote 2000.

Funded with $825,000 over two years from Pew (through the League of Women Voters, because the coalition is not a nonprofit), Youth Vote 2000 brought together dozens of organizations and set up 22 field offices to register young voters, organize events such as candidate debates for young people, and urge young people to vote. The coalition was one of at least 10 organizations that ran national youth vote campaigns in 2000 and 2001.

Some of those efforts, like the youth conventions held by Youth In Action, appear to have had little effect on the election, while others, such as the Aspen Institute’s guides for helping candidates reach young voters, made some headway. Events like candidate debates and voter registration rallies with musical artists draw crowds, but their impact remains uncertain.

“You don’t get the most bang for your buck” with flashy events, says Veronica De La Garza, communications director for the Youth Vote Coalition.

Researchers did, however, devise a way to measure the bang of one-on-one contact.

Getting Results

Yale researchers provided the local Youth Vote coalitions with lists of registered voters ages 18 to 30 to contact. Most of the callers and canvassers were in their 20s and were drawn from coalition partners or through community recruitment (such as fliers). They were both volunteer and paid (about $10 an hour for canvassing.)

The outreach usually took place two to four weeks before the election. Sometimes the canvassers dropped off nonpartisan voter information, such as “how to vote” guides provided by Project Vote Smart.

As for the calls, one Yale study described them like this:

“Although each site developed its own script emphasizing the importance of making one’s voice heard, in practice these calls were chatty and informal, sometimes lasting for five or 10 minutes, and conveyed information about the where and when to vote. Both in tone and content, these calls were very different from those typical of commercial phone banks, which have been found to be ineffective at mobilizing voters.”

Green and fellow Yale professor Alan S. Gerber studied how many of those contacted in 10 cities (see sidebar) over the two years actually voted, compared with control groups that were not contacted. The two experiments involved about 12,000 young adults, including control groups.

Among their findings, detailed in reports released last year and this year:

• Phone calls – When a student caller “contacted” a voter about voting, it increased the chances of the person voting by an average of about 5 percent. “Contact” included leaving a message for the person on an answering machine. Actually talking to the voter had the biggest impact – as much as 13 percent in Albany.

• Face-to-face canvassing – Each contact increased the odds of someone voting by an average of 8.5 percent. The effect was strongest for those 25 and under.

These experiments, the professors said in a report released in May, show that “mobilization campaigns … have the potential to substantially increase youth turnout.”

Pew tested that potential by expanding the phone and canvassing effort to 12 sites this year.

But like just about anything aimed at changing behavior, the campaigns carry cautions for anyone who wants to replicate the results.

Murphy’s Law Enforced Here

Raleigh illustrates a lot of what can go wrong.

First, says one of the Yale studies, “the printed materials arrived late, and this delay forced the canvassers to stand around in a cold driving rain for an hour before knocking on doors.” Then things got worse. Aside from black canvassers being ignored or hassled, “a coincidental canvassing effort by white supremacists seeking to deport Arabs raised residents’ general level of hostility to canvassers. Local police stopped and questioned some of the white canvassers … thinking that they were white supremacists.”

Raleigh may have provided a unique brew of troubles, but it shows how local conditions can complicate efforts to replicate campaigns built on personal contact. In Oregon, for instance, organizers ran an impressive phone and canvassing effort, and had much less impact than expected. The researchers blame the voting system there, which allows voters to mail in ballots early – rendering irrelevant many of the contacts made within two weeks of the election.

The Yale study warned that the increasingly varied voting processes in different states, including more early voting options, pose a challenge for those trying to replicate these get-out-the-vote efforts.

This year campaigns brought new lessons:

• In St. Louis, coalition organizers struggled to find enough canvassers, even after offering money. “A lot of people don’t want to go door-to-door knocking,” says Ritter, the local host. “They think they’re imposing.” Many of the canvassers “just got really tired” and didn’t get to many homes. She suspected that some people marked off homes on their lists that they didn’t actually visit.

“There was really no quality control,” she says. “There are only two of us who are running the entire operation. We couldn’t stand at the doors with every single person.”

The phone bank worked better, except that “we didn’t get enough phone numbers” – only about 3,500, which were exhausted in two weeks.

• In Minnesota, organizers didn’t plan on much canvassing. Why not? “It’s cold,” says Ed Day, the Youth Vote Coalition field organizer in St. Paul. Aren’t Minnesotans used to it? “We brag about it,” he says, “but I think a lot of people shy away from it.”

Then the sudden death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) soon before the election threw many election-related plans out of whack.
Day lamented that one community group that had pledged to canvass for the coalition “punked out and went to a Walter Mondale rally instead.”

The phone bank, on the other hand, had plenty of numbers to call, and Day is confident that their efforts helped to boost voter turnout.

• In Miami, many voters were still sore about Florida’s presidential election debacle of 2000 and were adamant about the futility of voting. (This affected election-related activities throughout the state.)

• But in Raleigh, the canvassers “took a number of precautions” this year, says North Carolina Field Director Colleen Sarna. One of the coalition’s primary partners, the local Black Youth Vote, created canvassing guidelines that included working in pairs. With no pressing racial tensions this year, canvassers in the area (which includes Durham and Chapel Hill) “didn’t encounter any of the adversity” that marred the last effort, Sarna says.

What also seemed to work well were several changes instituted by the national Youth Vote Coalition at the suggestion of people from the earlier campaigns, De La Garza says. Among them: having two or three paid local coordinators at each site rather than one; giving all the sites their own Web pages, which are part of the national website; and giving all the coordinators a coalition
e-mail address.

Despite a few glitches, this year’s campaigns appear to have operated well. Coordinators reported a lot of enthusiasm among workers, a lot of cooperation among partners and a sense of appreciation among voters contacted. Yale will again evaluate the impact on turnout.

Now comes “the real problem,” says Delli Carpini at Pew. “Putting enough resources into this and having the infrastructure that can do this on a larger scale.”

Wanted: Tons Of People

Anybody who’s trudged door-to-door to sell something or get signatures for petitions knows that it’s incredibly time-intensive. In St. Louis, Ritter says, “you could probably dial 50 to a hundred [numbers] in an hour and get at least 10 to 15 contacts out of those.” With door-to-door canvassing, people would knock on 50 to 100 doors in a four-hour shift, and “would come back with eight solid contacts.”

In an era when politicians believe the most efficient way to reach voters is through mass media campaigns, the idea of recruiting untold thousands of people to meet young voters one by one is daunting. And who would pay the $12 to $20 it costs to rouse each one to the polls?

Considering the millions spent on political campaigns, Delli Carpini says, it’s really not much. After all, Democrat Jon Corzine of New Jersey won his U.S. Senate seat in 2000 by spending about $43 a vote.

“You should be able to buy enough labor” for the canvassing, asserts Green from Yale.

Ritter, who “loved” canvassing and thinks it’s more effective than phone calls, has a warning: “You need tons of people,” she says. “The problem is getting dedicated people that wanna go door to door, that aren’t going out and getting drunk.”

At the University of Minnesota, junior Zachery Coelius thinks he has another way: e-mail.

The political science major heads a new nonprofit, Votes for Students, which he says sent half a million e-mails to voters at two dozen colleges in several states this fall. Most voters got more than one message; they included information on how to register online, a survey about youth voting, access to candidate information and directions to polling places.

Coelius estimates that 200,000 of the messages were read. The results of the experiment, which includes a control group, will be evaluated by Green at Yale.

USAVoteNet, a coalition of voting groups under the nonprofit WomenVote project, suggests that the impact of such efforts is quite limited. In an analysis this year of get-out-the-vote campaigns, the organization reported that although Internet contact compelled more people to register, when it came to voting, “mail, faxes and e-mails were virtually ineffective without follow-up phone calls or visits.”

Follow-up worked well when Rock the Vote got young people to sign cards pledging to vote in 1996, then mailed them their own cards just before the election. Researchers estimated that 67 percent of them voted.

The mail and e-mail strategies might be particularly useful considering some final, dismal findings.

Shallow Impact

Much was made of the sense that the Sept. 11 attacks sparked a renewed sense of civic duty among Americans, including youth and young adults.

But a study by Lake Snell Perry & Associates in January, conducted for several civic involvement organizations, concluded that “the terrorist attacks and the war appear to have influenced the way young adults feel about the government, their communities and – in theory – about their own civic and political involvement.” It found young adults more trustful of government and more interested in working with “community and issue” organizations.

“However,” the report said, “these tragic recent events have not yet impacted young adults’ community or political behavior. Relative to two, four, and six years ago, levels of voter registration and volunteering are down, and young adults show no change in their likelihood to think of voting as important.”

In announcing a $3.2 million grant this year to the Youth Vote Coalition (through the Tides Center in San Francisco), Pew lamented that among young people “the apparent increase in patriotism and civic spirit has not resulted in greater turnout in elections.”

And even if the likes of Ritter in St. Louis and Day in St. Paul did get more young people to vote this year, there’s this: When Yale surveyed the treatment and control groups after previous elections, it found no difference in their attitudes toward participation in the political system.

“Being contacted by a voter mobilization campaign … has no lasting effect on interest in politics, confidence in the political system, or feelings of civic duty,” Yale reported. “This pattern of findings suggests that canvassing itself leaves a shallow imprint on the way that voters view politics. Exposure to a nonpartisan campaign is not a transformative experience, even if it does play an important role in encouraging voter participation in a given election.”

In other words, to get young people to vote, you may have to knock on their doors before every election.

Or just let them grow old. According to the U.S. Census, 72 percent of 65- to 74-year-olds voted in 2000, the highest rate of any age group. A survey released in October by Kaiser, Harvard University and The Washington Post estimated that senior citizen voters outnumber voters under 30 by more than two to one. If current trends continue, in 20 years the ratio will be four to one.

Patrick Boyle can be reached at


Michael Delli Carpini, Public Policy Director
Pew Charitable Trusts
2005 Market St.
Suite 1700
Philadelphia, PA 19103
(215) 575-9050

James Gibbons, National Field Director
Youth Vote Coalition
1010 Vermont Ave., NW
Suite 715
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 783-4751

Rock the Vote
10635 Santa Monica Blvd.
Box 22
Los Angeles CA 90025
(310) 234-0665

Donald P. Green
Institution for Social and Policy Studies
P.O. Box 208209
Yale University
New Haven, CT 06520
(203) 432-3237


“Getting Out the Youth Vote: Results from Randomized Field Experiments”
“Getting Out the Youth Vote in Local Elections: Results from Six Door-to-Door Canvassing Experiments”
Donald P. Green, Alan S. Gerber, search for “youth vote”

“Encouraging Civic Engagement: How Teens Are (or Are Not) Becoming Responsible Citizens”
Child Trends

Medill News Service project on “no show” voters.

Making Contact

Following are the sites where the Youth Vote Coalition contacted thousands of young people by phone and in person to encourage them to vote. The subsequent analysis of those efforts by Yale University was funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland.

Ages: 18 to 30
Method of contact: phone calls and face-to-face
Sites: Boulder, Colo.; Albany, N.Y.; Stony Brook, N.Y.; Eugene, Ore.


Ages: 18 to 25
Method of contact: face-to-face
Sites: Bridgeport, Conn.; Columbus, Ohio; Raleigh, N.C.; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; Detroit.

Getting Out the Youth Vote: What Works, What Doesn’t

By Patrick Boyle

Following are some of the efforts to increase youth voting and candidates’ attention to young voters over the past several years, and their results:

Candidate attention: The Aspen Institute’s Young Voter Initiative, funded in part with $625,000 from Pew, included creation of a “tool kit” in 2000 to help candidates reach young voters. The kit included ideas about crafting literature and Web pages that stress the candidate’s activities and positions on issues of concern to youth. Organizers did not measure how many candidates used the ideas to reach young people.

This year the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, at the Council for Excellence in Government, took the idea further with its Campaign for Young Voters. It focused on helping candidates in five sites – Des Moines, Iowa; El Paso, Texas; Little Rock, Ark.; Fresno, Calif.; and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa. In the first three, the project asked candidates to sign “pledge cards” saying they would devote resources to targeting young voters in exchange for getting advice on how to carry out the recommendations in the revamped tool kit.

The kit includes several downloadable documents, such as an 18th birthday card for candidates to mail to youth reminding them to register to vote, and a template for a candidate profile focusing on the candidate’s youth-oriented involvement and policy positions.

The project plans focus groups of young people to try to quantify how much attention candidates paid to young people and their issues in the targeted cities.

Events: When Youth Vote 2000 talked to youth about rallies, concerts and celebrity-filled events, says Communication Director Veronica De La Garza, “The youth were telling us, ‘Yeah, artists are fun, we like watching them, but we don’t take them seriously. They’re being paid to do this.’ ” But the events are worth doing occasionally, she says, because “you get a lot of exposure and keep the energy alive.”

Media Coverage: Various efforts to increase coverage of young voters – by MTV and Rock the Vote, for instance – appear to have had some effect on the mainstream news media. Studies by the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that there was more news media election-related coverage of young people in 2000 than in previous years, says Public Policy Director Michael Delli Carpini.

But while many of the stories talked about the concerns of young people, he says, “a lot the articles were about low voter turnout among young people.” As for “whether that [increased coverage] generates a greater sense of involvement” among young people, he says, “we can’t make that connection.”

The Medill News Service in Washington, D.C. (part of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism) produced more than 500 stories during the 2000 election for its subscribers – college newspapers and TV stations, and about 100 non-college daily newspapers. Funded in part with a $649,000 two-year grant from Pew, the project did not attempt to measure how many of the stories actually ran in the various news outlets.

“The point,” says Ellen Shearer, the news service director, “was to create a model of how to write for young people, to show that there are issues you can cover in politics that young people care about.” Focus groups showed that young people “like straight talk; they like to be shown directly what the impact [of an issue] is on them; they like to see young people quoted in stories.”
Left unanswered is whether the mainstream news media will pick up on that model. “I think there’s a lot of lip service paid toward reaching young audiences,” Shearer says.

Mock Elections: Kids Voting USA ( is a civic engagement program that, among other things, enables youths under 18 to cast nonbinding ballots on Election Day. The nonprofit reports that more than 750,000 kids voted this year. It cites studies saying that its program increases voting by the parents of the participating children, but it is unclear if those children are more likely to vote when they turn 18.

Pledges: In 1996, Rock the Vote got about 80,000 young people to sign cards pledging to vote, then mailed the cards to them shortly before the election. An evaluation by the Center for the Study of Political Psychology at the University of Minnesota found that in a sample of 800 of those card-signers, 67 percent voted.

Registration: Voter registration is a necessary element of get-out-the-vote drives – after all, you can’t vote if you’re not registered – but voting advocates see more and more evidence of how limited this strategy is. Some polls showed that only about half the registered young adults planned on voting this year. “There’s got to be a direct appeal to young people to vote once they’ve registered,” says Delli Carpini.

Rock the Vote says it has registered more than 500,000 young people (ages 18 to 30) since 2000.

Youth Conventions: Youth In Action, which conducts a variety of civic engagement activities, held youth conventions near the 2000 Republican and Democratic national conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Funded primarily by Pew ($325,000), the conventions brought together hundreds of youth delegates, who created a national “youth platform” to be distributed to the candidates. But George Bush and Al Gore turned down invitations to speak. (Ralph Nader spoke at the Philadelphia gathering.)

Pew hoped there would be “more of an exchange between these official party conventions and the youth conventions,” Delli Carpini says. “That just never happened.” And the youth platform “didn’t catch fire.”

Goutam Jois, the organization’s political outreach coordinator, says the conventions and platform succeeded in engaging youth and in helping to raise media awareness about young voter issues. But “it’s not going to have much impact on the political process,” he says, at least not immediately.