Voting 101

Media Contacts
Diane E. Brown

Arizona PIRG Education Fund

The Problem
Until the recent turnaround witnessed during the 2004 elections, voting rates among youth had steadily declined since 18 year-olds first won the right to vote in 1972.  Yet, even with these encouraging increases in turnout, overall youth voter turnout remains too low.  For example, less than half of eligible young people voted in 2004, compared to nearly 70 percent of voters forty-five and older.

It is critical to significantly boost youth voting for three key reasons. First, young people are the generation that will be most impacted by our most pressing issues (global warming, college affordability and health care) and by engaging them now it is more likely that they will be a driving force towards the solutions to these issues. Second, youth are a big and growing portion of the electorate (nearly 25% in 2008) and as such have the potential to make big impacts on these issues.  Third, youth voting habits are formed early – getting more young people to vote now results in a more active citizenry in the future.

Why Don’t Young People Vote?
Surveys indicate many reasons why young people are not voting. They feel it does not make a difference, they are not registered, they do not have enough information, or there is not enough time.

Two explanations for low turnout rates among young people have been bringing social scientists and practitioners together – one, that young people are seldom the focus of campaign messages, and two, that they are rarely the focus of person-to-person mobilization campaigns.

Studies by Yale Political Science Professors Don Green and Alan Gerber suggest that a large-scale peer-to-peer effort of voter contact targeted at young people can make a significant difference in the turnout rate of young voters, increasing youth turnout by 5 to 8 percentage points among those registered voters who are contacted. However, in order to conduct peer-to-peer contact operations and increase youth turnout on a significant scale, it is necessary to first increase the pool of eligible voters, through a big, targeted voter registration drive.

Why Young Voters Are Ignored
Political campaign strategies emphasize a focus on voters that 1) will have a reliable voter turnout for a particular candidate, and 2) will be likely to turn out and vote for that particular candidate. This has been the conventional wisdom of campaigns for many years, and each year as youth voter turnout declines, that rationale, and a vicious “cycle of neglect” are further perpetuated: because young people don’t vote, campaigns feel they shouldn’t waste resources targeting young voters, which only leads to continued disengagement of young voters. During the 2000 general election, for example, despite the $3 billion pumped into the campaign economy by Democrats and Republicans, not even one presidential campaign advertisement targeted young voters.

But things are looking up.  Of the approximately $4 billion spent in the 2004 election cycle, it is estimated that $50 million was targeted towards young voters – a mere fraction of the total dollars spent, but the most ever targeted by organizations, political parties and candidates towards young people. With an 11 percentage point increase in turnout, it seems that those who spent resources on the youth vote saw a significant return on their investment.

Why Young Voters Shouldn’t be Ignored
Young voters will play a critical role in the 2008 elections. Not only are they turning out to the polls in increasing numbers, but young people (18-31 year olds) represent nearly one-quarter of the national electorate. 

The evidence also shows that outreach works – especially when it is peer to peer. That is where the Arizona Student Voter Coalition comes in – using our time tested and academically reviewed peer-to-peer methods to mobilize youth.  An analysis of our work found that young people contacted by the Student PIRGs’ New Voters Project turned out at a rate 13 percentage points higher than a group of demographically similar individuals who also registered to vote within six months of the election.