Down for the Count

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Voting rates for young adults hit an all-time low in the last national election. Demos are key in finding the registered few.

Just 12 months from now, some of us will go to the polls to elect the first president of the next millennium. But if past trends hold, even fewer Americans in 2000 than the 54 percent that turned out in 1996 will cast their ballots for the next leader of the free world. And once again, the youngest eligible voters - those aged 18 to 24 - will claim the lowest voting rates.

The 1972 presidential race between George McGovern and Richard Nixon was the first national election in which 18-to-20-year-olds were allowed to vote. And that year, when the Vietnam War was still raging, 50 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds showed up at the polls, versus 63 percent of voters overall. Though not stellar by any measure, that turnout was the historical high-water mark. Since then, young-voter turnout has hit new lows in four of the last six presidential elections. By 1996, only 32 percent of the 24.7 million eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted. Beryl Anderson, Ohio's deputy secretary of state and a representative of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), calls this "a national crisis. We are very interested in the issue of increasing voter participation, particularly among youths."

First they'll have to get them registered. Only 49 percent of 18-to-24 year-olds were registered to vote in 1996. So who are the best prospects?

According to the New Millennium Project, a study of 15-to-24-year-olds conducted by NASS, young adults 21 years and older are more likely than those 18 to 20 to be registered to vote. Seventy-six percent of college students also carry voter registration cards, compared to 68 percent of non-students. Of those who've donned a college graduation cap and gown, registration rates soar to 89 percent, versus 79 percent of students who didn't graduate.

But while registration is obviously a precondition to voting, it doesn't guarantee that young voters will draw the curtain on any given Election Day. Only 41 percent of current college students or those with some college education reported pulling the lever in the 1998 mid-term elections. Just 25 percent of those with a high school education or less did the same. (Historically, mid-term turnout overall is lower than in national election years.)

There are geographic correlations as well. The Midwest, whose youth voted more than any other region in 1996 (34.8 percent of 18-to-20-year-olds and 40.5 percent of those 21 to 24) - also leads the nation in the percentage of high school graduates among 18-to-24-year-olds - 80.5 percent.

And Connecticut, which claims the fourth-highest percentage of bachelor's degrees per capita (34.3 percent), ranked second in the percent of young adults who reported to the polls in '96 - 45.3 percent. West Virginia ranked 46th for young voters in 1996 (26.1 percent), and produced the lowest percentage of bachelor's degrees per capita (14.2 percent).

Candidates wanting to capture the youth vote should pay attention to what's being discussed at family dinner tables across the country. Half of the young voters who engaged in frequent political discussions at home said they voted in 1998, according to the NASS study, as opposed to 26 percent of those who had infrequent conversations with their parents about politics.

Peer pressure has less effect, however. Even though more than a third of Hispanics (35 percent) said they discuss politics with their peers, more than whites (31 percent) and blacks (28 percent), they are the least likely to vote: Only 15 percent voted in '96, behind 32.4 percent of blacks and 33.3 percent of whites. Women were more likely to vote across all racial groups, with black women winning the prize: 38 percent voted in '96, versus 35 percent of white women, and 19 percent of Hispanic women. Among males, 26 percent of blacks, 31 percent of whites, and 12 percent of Hispanics cast their vote.

But their parents' voting history is one of the strongest predictors of young peoples' voting patterns. Forty-eight percent of 18-to-24-year-olds who said their parents vote in every election followed mom and dad to the polls in 1998. Similarly, 40 percent of those whosaid their parents vote in most elections also turned out. But only 20 percent of those whose parents make only occasional trips to the polls voted last November.

The generational influence can be viewed geographically as well. In the '96 national election, states with high youth turnout also tended to have a high turnout by adults aged 45 to 65. Young Kansans, for example, ranked third in the nation, with 43 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds there going to the polls. And Kansans aged 45 to 65 ranked seventh in the nation that year. Similar patterns can be seen at the opposite end of the spectrum: Hawaii and Florida ranked among the bottom three states in the nation for voter turnout by the young and the old.

What are the issues that are likely to get a youth vote? Twenty-nine percent of 18-to-25-year-olds surveyed by Project Vote Smart (PVS) ranked jobs, the economy, and wages as the issues most important to them, followed by education, which scored 19 percent. Crime proved most important to the 15-to-24-year-olds polled by NASS, but the organization notes that crime concerns drop notably among the older respondents, for whom pocketbook issues are more important.

But political strategists, take note: Young adults are less likely to vote the party ticket than the general voting public. Nearly half of all registered 18-to-25-year-olds polled by PVS are Independent (46.3 percent), while 31.4 percent are Democrat and 22.3 percent are Republican. Clearly, third-party candidates have the potential to capture the youth vote in 2000, especially if they court them directly. But few are doing so. "Young people are a potential swing vote, but politicians aren't appealing to them as they would other groups, like Hispanics or gays and lesbians," says Alison Byrne Fields of Rock-the-Vote.

And where should the courting begin? Not surprisingly, 70 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds say the Web is their chief source of political information, according to PVS, while older voters still say television is their number one source.

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