Efforts to involve more young people in last month’s elections reaped some moderately good results: The precipitous decline in voting among young adults did a small about-face, and candidates around the country participated in an apparently unprecedented number of debates staged by and for youth.
But the election also left youth vote advocates bemoaning lost opportunities, as the two major presidential candidates punted away chances to target their messages toward young people, and as young people missed chances to have a bigger impact.
About 38 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds voted last month, according to Voter News Service (VNS), up about two percentage points from 1996. That’s the first upturn since 18-year-olds won the right to vote in 1972, and it amounts to about 1 million more voters than four years ago.
What’s more, young voters had some real impact: Without them, Vice President Al Gore would have had no reason to seek recounts in Florida, and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader would have had even more trouble claiming a moral victory. Gore got 48 percent of the 18-to-29 vote nationwide, compared to 46 percent for Gov. George Bush and 5 percent for Nader. And in Florida, Gore took the under-30 vote by 55 percent to 40 percent, which helped to make that state’s race too close to call weeks after Election Day.
“Given the decline in the youth turnout over the last several decades and given the predictions that this was going to be another example of decline, we feel pretty good that it looks like that overall pattern was arrested,” says a cautious Michael Delli Carpini, director of public policy programs at Pew Charitable Trusts. He and others attribute the rise to the closeness of the race, more media attention to young voters, and efforts to educate and motivate young voters. Those efforts include MTV’s Choose or Lose campaign and Youth Vote 2000 (a coalition funded primarily by $800,000 from Pew), which say they registered more than one million (mostly young) voters.
But those factors leave advocates wondering why turnout wasn’t higher. Russ Freyman, project director of Neglection 2000, says the 38 percent turnout by his peers (he’s 26) looks good only when compared to the “pathetic” turnout of 1996. Overall voter turnout was up this year anyway, and early returns said under-30 voters accounted for 17 percent of the total, according to VNS – the same as 1996. Yet 18-to-25-year olds alone comprise about 25 percent of eligible voters, according to the Aspen Institute.
“We’re still scraping the bottom for youth participation,” says Sandy Horwitz, a voting consultant who directed the 1998 New Millennium study on youth participation in politics and government for the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Around the country, efforts to get young people to vote ranged from Election Day phone calls and rides to polling places, to helping Oregonians vote from home. Since Oregon voters had to mail in their ballots or drop them off at selected sites, volunteers from the state Youth Vote 2000 organization went door-to-door (often in college residence halls) on election eve and Election Day, picking up 6,000 completed ballots to turn in.
The election was full of “what ifs” for Bush and Gore, and many of those questions concern how young people did or did not cast their votes.
The Nader Factor
Did young adults who voted for Nader cost Gore a clean electoral victory or give one to Bush? Nader’s 5 percent take among under-30s was significantly more than his three percent national tally. With the assumption that without Nader in the race, many of those voters would have voted for Gore (or just not voted), it seems Nader voters cost Gore some states. For instance, Nader drew 22,000 votes in New Hampshire, which Bush won by about 8,000 votes. He drew 96,000 votes in Florida, where the gap between Bush and Gore was in the hundreds.
Freyman of Neglection 2000 (a nonprofit which strives to end the “mutual neglect” between young people and candidates) estimates that slightly more than 40 percent of under-30s voted in Florida – higher than the national average for that age group, but “still pretty disappointing.”
In Wisconsin, Nader voters nearly delivered the state to Bush. Gore beat Bush among under-30s, but only by 46 to 44 percent; Nader garnered 10 percent, thanks largely to the college community in Madison. Gore barely won Wisconsin by winning those over 65, who went for Gore by 7 percent, Freyman notes.
Young Nader voters were aware of their potential impact. Some said neither Bush nor Gore deserved their votes anyway. “I wanted to vote my conscience,” Palm Beach County resident Anajaili Sardeshmuclh, 20, told Medill News Service after punching out a chad for Nader. Nader supporters also argue that Nader attracted young people to the polls who otherwise would not have voted.
Other Nader supporters switched to one of the two major candidates. “Many people were holding onto their ballots until the last minute,” says Ed Dennis, executive director of the Oregon Student Association, a partner with Youth Vote 2000. “They wanted to choose Nader or Gore, depending on how effective they thought their vote would be. A lot of college students were being that pragmatic about it.” Nader got 5 percent of the vote in Oregon, enough to leave Gore and Bush in a virtual deadlock more than a week after the election. Nader’s 4 percent take in New Mexico left that state in a deadlock for a week before it was called for Gore.
There are good reasons for Nader drawing young voters. Third party rebels tend to inspire under-30 voters. In 1996 Ross Perot got 10 percent of the under-30 vote, and in 1992 he got 21 percent, according to Youth Vote 2000.
Plus, Nader paid more attention to youth, building his campaign rallies around college campuses. At the “alternative youth conventions” that the nonprofit Youth in Action held in Philadelphia and Los Angeles this summer, Nader and John Hagelin were the only candidates who accepted invitations.
Bush and Gore did connect with young people on some issues, Freyman says, such as social security investments and tuition tax credits. But both missed the best opportunity of the campaign to reach young voters.
During the third nationally televised presidential debate, a college professor stood and said, “I hear a lot of apathy amongst young people who feel that there are no issues directed to them. And they don’t plan to vote. How do you address that?”
“We’ve got to change it,” said Gore, who then slipped into a standard campaign riff about the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill, Social Security, prescription drugs and big oil companies. Bush talked about Medicare, Social Security, and changing “the bitterness in Washington, D.C.”
“When they are asked about the very issue of apathy among young adults, they use the opportunity to shore up support among senior citizens,” Brent McGoldrick of Neglection 2000 lamented in an online piece after the debate. Youth Vote 2000 had gathered young people in a room to watch the debate and react to questions and answers by turning dials. John Dervin, the group’s political director, says the dial measurements “shot up” when the professor asked the question; when the candidates answered, the dials turned all the way back down. “It went flat-line,” he told The Washington Post.
Youth Vote 2000 made a major push for the Commission on Presidential Debates to hold a “youth debate,” with young people moderating and asking the questions. The group staged a petition drive, commissioned a national poll that showed support for the idea, and enlisted the help of partners such as MTV and the World Wrestling Federation. It didn’t work.
A Bush Landslide
Around the country, however, local Youth Vote 2000 organizations report staging more than 100 youth debates among candidates for local, state and national offices. Oregon alone held 40, Dennis says. He says each was attended by at least 50 young people, and one by more than 300. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., 700 people attended a debate between the state’s seven U.S. Senate candidates, says Minnesota Youth Vote 2000 coordinator Monica Meyers. At the end, youths in the audience got 15 minutes (30 seconds apiece) to talk to the candidates without the candidates responding.
At a debriefing for the Youth Vote 2000 members in Washington, D.C., last month, there was widespread agreement that the youth debates invigorated young people and should be continued through debates during off-year elections, or through issues forums with elected officials. Delli Carpini says Youth Vote 2000 will examine areas where it made special efforts to see if those efforts affected turnout.
On another front, more than 4.4 million youths who are too young to vote cast ballots anyway – through mock elections coordinated by various civic education groups, such as Kids Voting USA, the National Student/Parent Mock Election, Youth e-Vote and Channel One’s One Vote Project. Most of the votes were held through schools, and the 1.3 million votes made on the Internet made it “the first national scale test of online voting,” says Mock Election Director Alice Jones.
The results show that there would have been no squabbling over butterfly ballots if voting requirements were flipped to include only those under 18: Bush took 53.9 percent of the tally, while Gore took 40.6 percent and Nader 3.2 percent.
The Democratic National Committee expected such an outcome and tried to delay one of the votes. The Mock Election was held Nov. 2, and the Democrats feared the results could influence some voters on Election Day (Nov. 7), Jones says. She told the DNC that the vote date was
set by Congress (the program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education) and only Congress could change it. No lawsuits were filed.
Jones believes one reason for the lopsided victory was that those who voted online through Youth e-Vote were most likely from more affluent communities where the schools had the computer power to offer that option.