|Photo: Marc Nozell|
Here’s something you don’t often hear before an election: The youth vote is expected to be big.
It’s been rising for several years. Voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds rose by 9 percent in 2004, the largest increase since 18-year-olds earned the right to vote in 1971. This year, record numbers of young voters turned out for the presidential primaries. The candidacy of Democrat Barack Obama, and his close race with Republican John McCain, is expected to spur a huge turnout of young voters in November.
That, however, raises an important question: Can efforts to increase the youth vote succeed independently of the buzz around one candidate? Already, the Obama Factor has caused a drop in funding for and interest in youth vote efforts by nonpartisan groups, says Alex Arnson, youth vote director for The Bus Project, in Oregon. “There’s a perception the Barack Obama campaign will fund the youth vote,” he says. “But that’s not good. We have to look at the long term.”
Here is what looking at the long term means.
First, it isn’t cheap. In 2004, partisan and nonpartisan groups spent more than $40 million on youth voter registration efforts, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), based at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. A record 20 million under-30s voted that fall, almost half of all 18- to 29-year-olds, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Voting in the last presidential election increased among 18- to 24-year-olds by 11 percentage points.
Second, it works best when it’s personal. Youth voting and civic engagement activists say a one-on-one approach is most successful. Research from CIRCLE’s Young Voter Mobilization Tactics shows that door-to-door contact, whether partisan or nonpartisan, generally costs from $10 to $14 per additional vote. That strategy is most cost-effective in dense neighborhoods, apartment buildings and places where young people congregate.
CIRCLE research shows that the medium used to recruit young voters has a bigger impact than the message. “What works is the interactivity,” says Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE. “The more the message is just an opening for discussion, the better the result.”
Young people respond to personal discussion, even on the phone, especially if the script is longer and conversational. Interactive phone calls cost about $10 a vote, according to CIRCLE. Levine says robo-calls definitely don’t work, costing as much as $275 per additional vote. CIRCLE research shows that direct mail is also ineffective, costing from $40 to $200 per vote.
Civic organizations shouldn’t overlook the power of technology either. According to figures from The Pew Research Center, 70 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds use the Internet daily. That’s one reason why online voter registration has gained momentum in recent years through popular sites like http://RocktheVote.com and http://DeclareYourself.org. Reaching out to young voters through the Internet is cheap, too. According to online registration test results from Washington-based Rock the Vote, it costs $2 to $10 to register a young voter online.
Online social networks are another great outreach tool. Rock the Vote research shows it’s worthwhile for candidates to to set up a profile on popular sites like MySpace and Facebook.
Another factor is that a nonpartisan approach isn’t always the most effective. CIRCLE’s research shows that door-to-door canvassing has been more effective when it involved contact on behalf of a particular candidate, as opposed to a general call to go to the polls.
“It can be more difficult to mobilize people for a nonpartisan approach,” says Matthew Segal, executive director of Student Association for Vote Empowerment (SAVE), “but at the same time, a partisan registration drive is going to turn some people off.”
Hard to Reach
Even with the right approaches, most youth voter registration efforts face similar challenges in reaching certain populations.
Many efforts focus on college students, who make up less than 45 percent of eligible American voters under 25, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2005.
Levine at CIRCLE points out that turnout for the Super Tuesday primaries this year among college-age young people who were actually in college was one in four; turnout among non-collegians in the same age group was one in 14. “It’s really important to reach kids not heading to college,” he says. “They have dramatically lower voting rates, and they’re harder to reach and much less confident.”
“The majority of young people are not in college and can’t take the time off to go vote,” says David Burstein, founder of 18 in ’08, a voter registration and participation effort, based in New York. That’s one reason his project tries to create partnerships with organizations working on youth civic engagement in their own communities, like Generation Engage.
Burstein says youth voting organizations also need to target high schools better, reaching youths before they hit voting age. “It’s hard to ask people at 18 to suddenly get involved in politics.”
That’s why Kids Voting USA sponsors mock elections for youths, in which they go to polling places with their parents and vote (at special kids’ booths) on the same issues. “We’ve found that kids who participate in Kids Voting register to vote [years later] at a higher rate than their non-participating counterparts,” says Jack Barse, president and CEO of Kids Voting USA.
Levine at CIRCLE believes the more exposure young people receive to civic education before 18, the more likely they are to become actively engaged adults. He says youth are open to discussing public issues and news events in school. “The chance for dialogue is key to them.”
Another issue, according to SAVE, is that young people who attend out-of-state colleges can’t register in some states, don’t know they can in others, or don’t have easy access to registration. “We could have incredible turnout this fall,” says SAVE’s Segal. “But we don’t know if those young people will actually be able to vote.”
SAVE strives to institutionalize voter registration on college campuses.