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The following is the final 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.
Young Voters Were Overlooked In Election 2010
By William Hinkle
Published: Dec. 20, 2010
RALEIGH - Entering this November’s election, common sense dictated that young voter turnout would be down relative to 2008, since it is practically a law of nature that turnout decreases during midterm elections for everyone -- not just the youth vote.
The real question was how much would the youth turnout rates fall after 2008’s near record-breaking numbers? Would its decrease mirror that of other age groups or would young voters revert to their sporadic voting habits and exhibit a more significant midterm decline than their more seasoned voting counterparts?
Simply put, the available data suggests that 2008 was an aberration. Nationally, exit polls found that voters under the age of 30 comprised only 11 percent of the electorate in 2010, compared to 18 percent in 2008 and 13 percent in 2006.
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) estimates that national youth turnout was 21 percent this year, down from 49 percent in 2008 and 24 percent in 2006. According to CIRCLE, other recent midterm election youth turnout rates were as follows: 21 percent in 2002, 24 percent in 1998 and 24 percent in 1994.
In North Carolina, the most recent numbers indicate that only 18 percent of young North Carolinians voted this year, the worst turnout of any voting bloc in the state.
However, numbers do not tell the entire story. The youth vote returning to its historical levels can be attributed to how much time and attention, or lack thereof, campaigns and candidates devoted to this typically underrepresented demographic.
For example, the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina between Richard Burr and Elaine Marshall seemed to avoid young voters altogether. In 2008, nary a day passed in which students walked through a college campus and were not approached by someone attempting to register voters. In fact, senatorial candidate Kay Hagan recruited campus captains to rally support for her campaign at local universities.
This year, neither my fellow students nor I were exposed to any prominently visible registration efforts or campaign events at N.C. State University, which has the largest undergraduate enrollment in North Carolina.
With that said, there were some positive examples of youth civic engagement this election cycle.
Rock the Vote, which exists to build political power for young people, targeted three youth-dense North Carolina precincts where it registered voters at various on-campus events and attempted to turn out the youth vote on Election Day. These precincts at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University saw a substantial uptick in turnout, with 1,668 total ballots cast this year, compared to 482 in 2006. Furthermore, more than 300,000 people downloaded a voter registration form from Rock the Vote’s website, compared to 50,000 in 2006.
If 2008 taught us anything, it was that if they are engaged and excited by candidates, young voters will turn out and account for a significant proportion of the voting population. The potential for young voters to influence elections and assert their political will was exemplified by their participation two years ago, but went untapped in 2010.
Of course, it is ultimately the responsibility for each individual -- young or old -- to civically engage themselves. However, successful youth civic engagement campaigns in 2008 and yearly efforts by organizations like Rock the Vote prove that the youth turnout gap can be closed.
There is a high volume of votes out there for candidates who are willing to dedicate the resources to capturing youth support. In elections to come, the parties and candidates who engage these young voters will reap the electoral rewards.