Covering politics in North Carolina and beyond, VoterRadio.com is streaming 24 hours a day. Listen live or on-demand.
VIDEO: Young Voters and 2010 Midterms
The following is the second 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.
Web Savvy Young Voters Think Globally, But Will They Act Locally?
By William Hinkle
Published: Oct. 28, 2010
RALEIGH - Youth voting in the U.S. and in North Carolina is in a precarious position.
As has been widely documented, 2008 marked the apex of recent increases in youth voting and was considered by many to be the “Year of the Youth Vote.” According to historical data and contemporary polls, however, youth turnout for the upcoming 2010 midterm election is expected to be dramatically different from that of 2008.
In its recent “Survey on Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics,” Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that only 27 percent of 18- to 29-year-old citizens will definitely vote in the 2010 midterm, compared to the 51.1 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 who the U.S. Census CPS Survey said cast a ballot in 2008.
Overall turnout -- not just that of America’s youth -- is always low in midterm years relative to presidential elections, and youth voting rates have steadily increased over the past couple of decades. So it is not unreasonable to believe that low expectations for youth turnout in this year’s midterms are not significant and are an anomaly -- not a shift -- in youth voting trends.
What factors contribute to the current state of youth voting? How can the expected differences from the 2008 and 2010 elections be reconciled?
First and foremost, higher youth voting rates must be at least partly attributable to increased ballot access.
In the past decade alone, North Carolina has taken three major steps to facilitate the voting process. In 2002, the state instituted early voting procedures that required each county to open at least one location between 19 and three days before the election where citizens can vote early. In 2007, North Carolina adopted a law that allows people to register and vote on the same day at these early voting sites.
Finally, during the 2009 long session, the N.C. General Assembly passed a bipartisan bill that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, particularly when they get their driver’s license or take a required civics course in high school. When these teenagers reach voting age, they will automatically be registered if they have filled out a pre-registration form. This law went into effect Jan. 1, 2010.
The increased integration of the Internet in political campaigns has helped to mobilize young voters. As the first generation to come of age with the Internet, the Millennials rely on social networks like Facebook and Twitter not only to stay connected with peers, but as a major source of news and information as well. In capturing the youth vote in 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign relied upon the Internet to keep young people engaged, going so far as to create its own social networking site -- MyBarackObama.com.
With that said, the Internet also partially explains lagging youth turnout in midterm elections. In a 2005 study titled “Television and Voter Turnout,” Matthew Gentzkow showed that the introduction of television contributed to declining voter turnout rates in the second half of the 20th century, causing sharp declines in consumption of newspapers and radio and reducing citizens’ knowledge of politics as measured through election surveys. More importantly, however, Gentzkow found the effects of television were most profound when it came to local elections because the political coverage of television news was primarily national.
Not only do these effects of television linger today, but they also apply to the Internet. In an increasingly globalized world, people tend to consume more national and international news than local media. As for the Millennials, who rely upon the Internet as their primary source of information, their attention will typically be focused on the national story of the day instead of what is happening in their communities. As a result, political participation suffers in midterm elections because of the information gap when it comes to local races.
For the upcoming election in particular, there are unique issues that help explain the lack of excitement of young voters relative to the presidential election in 2008.
The Tea Party movement is arguably the most galvanizing force in play this election cycle. This movement, however, resonates less with young people than any other demographic. According to a survey from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, only 11 percent of voters between 18 and 29 consider themselves supporters of the movement.
The status of today’s youth vote is the product of primarily two factors: increased ballot access and the manner in which the Millennials consume their information.
Obviously as increased ballot access facilitates the registration and voting process, higher turnout rates should result, especially for first-time registrants and voters. The Internet as the primary source of information, on the other hand, has two competing effects. With unlimited access to information and through the use of social networks, young voters have become more civically involved.
However, these voters seem to be more globally and nationally engaged, rather than focused on their local communities, creating an information gap between local and national news. Due to the relative lack of local knowledge, election cycles comprised only of local races experience depressed voter turnout.
Overall though, increased ballot access and the unlimited information potential of the Internet create a general trend that results in a more active youth vote.