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The following is the first installment of a three-part analysis of the state of youth voting in North Carolina. Part 1: An overview of where youth voting is today, focusing on youth turnout rates in recent presidential and midterm elections. Part 2: A look at factors contributing to the rate at which young Americans vote. Part 3: Youth voting in Election 2010 and beyond.

By the Numbers: Will the Youth Vote Tumble in the Wake of '08?

By William Hinkle

RALEIGH - Following the 2008 presidential election, there was a growing sense around the country that the habitually underrepresented youth vote may have turned the corner and established themselves as consistent civic participators.

Obama barrell

Just as the debut of televised debates in the 1960 presidential campaign between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon transformed the election process, the emerging use of Internet technologies like social networks in the 2008 election galvanized the technologically savvy Millennial Generation as a potent political force. In particular, Barack Obama capitalized on the fanfare surrounding his campaign to mobilize young voters like never before.

As the enthusiasm surrounding this upcoming election season has obviously waned relative to 2008, one must ask whether the youth turnout in 2008 was an aberration or an indication of more consistent participation practices.

According to data compiled by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, national turnout for citizens aged 18-24 increased each presidential election since 1996, when turnout for this age group was 35.6 percent -- a nadir after decades of decline. In fact, the 18-24 national turnout reached 48.5 percent in 2008, the third-highest mark since 1972 -- the first year 18-year-olds had the right to vote (18-24 turnout was 52.1 percent in 1972 and 48.6 percent in 1992).

Despite these increases, however, there remains concern that the volatility of the youth vote may be reflected in the upcoming midterm election. Historically, national turnout is down for all age groups during the midterm elections, but the decline in the youth vote is typically more pronounced.

For example, national voter turnout for ages 18-29 was 49 percent in the 2004 presidential election, but dropped to 26 percent in 2006. On the other hand, national turnout for voters 30 years of age and older only decreased by 14 percentage points, from 68 to 54, between 2004 and 2006.

With that said, the establishment of new structures to make voting easier has the potential to reverse the historical perception that young voters are fickle. In North Carolina, for example, One-Stop Early Voting, which extends from 19 to three days before the election, allows a county’s residents to register in-person and vote at a one-stop site during the early voting period. Voters may also update their address and change other vital registration information during One-Stop Early Voting. As access to voting is made easier through methods like One-Stop Early Voting, historically underrepresented and fickle voters are more likely to alter their inconsistent voting habits. 

Here in North Carolina, the youth turnout rates are reflective of the overall national trend of increased youth turnout. For instance, in the 2008 election, turnout for 18-29 year-olds increased in North Carolina by 10 percent -- from 45 to 55 -- more than any other state other than Virginia. Increases in youth turnout rates for midterm elections, however, are not nearly as significant as in presidential elections. From 1994 to 2006 in North Carolina, the 18-29 age group only increased its turnout by four percentage points, whereas the national turnout for this age group decreased by one percent during the same time period. 

So what does this all mean for the 2010 midterm elections in North Carolina? In short, one should expect the youth turnout to be slightly higher than that of the 2006 midterm, but come nowhere close to the level of participation in the 2008 election. According to data compiled by the N.C. Center for Voter Education, there are roughly 680,000 registered voters in North Carolina between the ages of 18 and 25 today. In the May primaries, just under 20,000 of them -- or 2.7 percent -- voted. In 2006, approximately half of today’s youth voters (those who are now 22-25) were already eligible to vote. Comprising the 18-21 age group in the most recent midterm election of 2006, these same voters turned out at a rate of 2 percent for the primary and 7.68 percent during the general election.

If the numbers and trends presented here are any indication, roughly 10 percent or so of North Carolina’s voters between 18 and 25 should be expected to vote in the upcoming general election. Whether or not youth voter turnout increase can be sustained, however, remains to be seen.

Removing registration barriers through methods such as One-Stop Early Voting and the increased incorporation of the Internet and other technological innovations in campaigns, among other things, certainly open access for the youth vote’s growing participation, but only time will tell if these factors are enough to overcome the erratic voting habits of America’s -- and North Carolina’s -- youth.

William Hinkle is a student in the Master of International Studies program at North Carolina State University and the fall 2010 intern with the N.C. Center for Voter Education.