November 4th, 2008
07:43 PM ET

Young Voter Turnout – Ridiculous or Sublime?

Rob Grabow
Author, "Voting with Our Pants Down"

The bar for young voters is relatively low. It was 36 years ago in 1972 that an all-time high - just 55 percent of us - punched chads or ticked ballots.

So, what about this year...one for the record books?

Preliminary early voting suggests otherwise. I wrote a book about young voters and have been shouting at the rain about why this year would be different, why we could be counted on. I've had to square these early, seemingly lackluster results with plentiful, contradicting anecdotal and material refutation. It hasn't been easy.

In fact, it wasn't until today, like a smack of hope, that an explanation struck me when I walked into a UPS store, refreshed after a good night's sleep. I asked two young workers, both long-time acquaintances, whether or not they had voted. "Not yet." Each insisted their ballots would be postmarked by the end of the day. I was skeptical, but I just received a text from one of them. Ballot mailed.

What does it mean that they've waited so long? It seems obvious on its face to me now, we're doing what we've done in college, at work, and in everyday life: holding out until five minutes before proverbial midnight.

Let's assume for a moment I was right and we're prepped and pumped to rock the polls. What should CNN viewers watch for?

So far, well over 1 million users have donated their Facebook profile statuses to the presidential candidates as a mark of engagement and support. So, keep an eye on the social networking sites, specifically profile statuses, popular shared links, and discussion boards. They can reflect whether young voters are really getting to the polls.

If Obama wins big in the critical swing states of Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Missouri, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, then you can bet young voters are playing electoral role of great consequence.

While not determinate, exit polls are also more useful than they get credit for.

Now what if I've been wrong? Let's consider the alternative scenario, one in which we don't vote.

My apartment manager, a mother of a 22-year-old, told me her son didn't register and will not be casting a ballot. Apathetic, right? Wrong.

He's skipping work and a good payday to track election coverage and the results as they come in. If he cares that much, why not simply vote?

It's as cliché as it is true, in his mom's words, "He knows his vote won't make a difference." This sentiment is arguably especially strong in non-swing states. The likelihood that one vote will determine the outcome of a national election is significantly less than the probability that James Carville will show up on election night with a beautiful head of finely combed hair. Ain't happenin'. So for scenario B, the young voter would have to be more typical. But even that mischaracterizes his outlook.

Poor turnout is not always an issue of apathy. And the folks who believe it is could be right on the one hand when they say we can't be counted on to turn out, but wrong on the other because they don't understand the reasons.

But enough about uncertain hypotheticals. Let's look for empiricals.

Here's the truth. Since 2004, after an almost 2-decadelong decline in our participation, young voter political engagement has been on the rise.

A lot of people, especially those who don't follow young voter trends, and aren't part of the demographic, view us in the context of the presidential elections of 2000 and before, period. From that perspective, the charges of apathy don't seem as unreasonable. For example, in 2000, only 36.1 percent of us voted. The problem with this train of thought, though, and what's missed, is young voters have quickly and steadily been gaining in numbers and appreciable demographical significance since 2004, a year in which our turnout jumped thirteen points, no small hike, from 2000.

Since 2004, we've played important roles in the elections of 2006. Consider the Montana Senatorial race. Democrat Jon Tester defeated incumbent Conrad Burns by just over 3,500 votes. 35,000 more young voters cast ballots than in 2002, and they broke overwhelmingly for Tester. Critical and discussed as that factor probably was, though, I don't remember seeing anything about it on TV. We also played important roles in electing Republican Governors Charlie Christ of Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, among many others.

We put Obama over the top in Iowa with an increase in turnout of 271 percent. We cast ballots in record numbers in 20 Super-Tuesday states and helped Obama secure primary victories in Connecticut, Georgia, Missouri, among others. We also helped McCain in New Hampshire, and Huckabee in Tennessee and Georgia.

Less known, we are also the demographical core of Obama's organization, the renowned ground-game that's put him in a position to be successful during the primaries and now in the general election. We go door to door, set up viral marketing profiles on social networking sites, cold call, arrange text message parties, coordinate other young volunteers, donate, drive older voters to the polls, prepare decorations and information for his media events, and offer other, not so sexy behind-the-scenes support. It's with this rarely talked about effort, in addition to strong showing in the voting booths, that I think we will have a profound impact on the election.

Not convinced?

I got a message last night from a family member in a small town I've mentioned before, Livingston, Montana. 10:40 p.m. on election eve, the building lights were shining resplendently against the backdrop of night, as eight young people in the Obama field office labored hard. It's a scene that plays out night after night in town and city after town and city for candidates from all parties.

Each of these young people recognizes that the directions of their candidates, country, and world rest in their capable hands. And it's not just that they've been inspired by McCain, Obama, et al. These young people have also mirrored hope and inspiration right back to the candidates. That's an intangible reality that even exit polls may never capture. In the end though, most young people will agree, voting is what will matter. We get that. I can hear the paraphrase on the old Clinton mantra, "It's the voting, stupid" thinly cloaked behind the thoughts we speak and words we write. Because of that, I'm comfortable betting that you'll hear from us this evening and for years to come.

Filed under: 2008 Election
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Kristi-Jamestown College, ND

    Incredibly proud to say I voted today. I must however express that I am one of these apathetic young people who feels their vote does not matter. That is what I learned from the 2000 election. I voted today because there was a time when I wouldn't have been able to as a woman, and to not take the opportunity regardless of my feelings of futility is a slap in the face of the suffragettes, who were political prisoners in this country. One of those things that happens everywhere else but not here, it is in their memory that I voted today.

    November 4, 2008 at 11:12 pm |
  2. Kristen-University Park, PA

    Well I am 22 and proud to say voted today, actually the first vote at my poling place. On my college campus there were dozens of students offering free carpools to and from polling places.

    Young people will get out and vote this year, why? I think for the first time a presidential candidate is actually speaking to the youth vote. Obama really made it a point to address issues we care about, didn't see that much from McCain. Obama even made a trip to my college campus back in the primary's. I didn't see McCain once. Palin did come last week but getting a ticket was extremely difficult. Her people even asked the president of the university not to attend.

    Anyway I am convinced that the youth vote will come out this election. And I hope people see how every vote does count, because if Obama didn't have the youth vote he would not be doing as well as he has.

    November 4, 2008 at 10:47 pm |
  3. Steve /Marion, Indiana

    Most of our polls only had 1 machine, the average was 22 people per hour. if you do the math in a 12 hour day. people had to leave the line to go to work ect. Where I voted it took 2 hours, in the past it took 15-20 mins. A place where there was 3 districts only had 1 machine.

    November 4, 2008 at 7:56 pm |