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The Youth Vote Counts: Presence of young voters at polls is critical to political process

“The Youth Vote Counts” is the fifth story in Think Democracy, a six-part series focused on the upcoming presidential election. As the nation approaches the November election, experts from The University of Texas at Austin will offer their perspectives on a range of issues and topics. This month’s feature focuses on students and the vote. A voter resource guide accompanies the story. Watch for the final feature in the Think Democracy series in October.

For young Americans born between 1983 and 1986, including thousands of students at The University of Texas at Austin, November 2nd will mark the first time they are eligible to vote in a presidential election. The question on the minds of politicians and political scientists alike is, “Will they actually go to the polls?”

If trends in voting are any indication, they may not. Americans age 18 to 24 have been voting less and less since they earned the right to vote in 1971 with the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, if the buzz around the youth vote is any indication, they may turn out in higher numbers than in previous elections.

In 2000, only about 42 percent of Americans age 18 to 24 turned out to vote.“There are an unprecedented number of groups who are trying to mobilize young voters, which is terrific,” says Dr. Sharon Jarvis, associate director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation and assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies.

Jarvis points out that in addition to established groups like Rock the Vote and the Youth Vote Coalition, everyone from athletes to rapper P. Diddy—whose Citizen Change group’s motto is “Vote or Die!”—are trying to get youth to the polls in November.

“The disheartening aspect is that voter turnout has continued to decline, so that is why we see this unprecedented number of groups,” says Jarvis.

Calculating voter turnout by age is tricky. The Federal Election Commission keeps statistics on the number of ballots cast, but does not have any way of knowing voters’ ages. Americans do not have to disclose their ages when they vote. Thus, polls and surveys are the only means of collecting such statistics.

Students are deputized to register voters

Students are deputized to register voters during Get Out the Vote activities held by the Annette Strauss Institute.

Photo: Melissa Huebsch

All measures, however, confirm that the youth vote has been in a near-consistent decline since 1972, when about 55 percent of those age 18 to 24 turned out to vote. By contrast, in the 2000 presidential election, only about 42 percent of those of the same age made it to the polls. Among citizens 25 and older, turnout was 70 percent.

“Admittedly, 1972 was a high point,” says Jarvis. “We were involved in a war and it was the first time that young folks had a chance to vote and so naturally there would be some excitement about the 1972 election.”

Even so, just more than half of those in the age group voted. The United States is not the only democracy that has a hard time getting young people to the polls. In Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and other countries, the youth vote lags behind that of older age groups. Theories abound for why young people don’t vote, but there’s clearly no one reason to explain the trend.

Research shows that young people are indeed civically involved. They are actively involved in their communities, often through volunteer activities. Their connection to politics and the political process is less developed, however. This may indicate that they don’t feel they can make a difference, that they think the system is corrupt or that they just haven’t received enough exposure to politics. They are less likely to read newspapers than their elders and have grown up with more media choices, many of which don’t include politics at all.

It’s possible, also, that they have been overexposed to some messages and underexposed to others.

If current voting trends continue, it is feared that by 2020 less than 25 percent of Americans will be making 100 percent of the electoral decisions. Dr. Sharon Jarvis“In an over-communicated society, we see more than 5,000 commercial impressions a day,” says Jarvis. “We are heavily courted by Taco Bell and Pepsi. Nike loves us, Reebok loves us, McDonald’s really loves us. Young people hailed in that environment feel that politicians don’t care.

“That’s a complication of our democratic polis. The market loves the citizen, yet we ask the citizen to go out and love the democratic system. Why shouldn’t young people imagine that companies have pitches and politicians have pitches, so they’re all just pitches?”

Another complication is that while traditionally education is the best predictor of voter turnout—people with college degrees have been more likely to vote than those without them—education has continued to increase nationally while voter turnout has decreased. Today’s young citizens constitute one of the best-educated generations in American history, yet their turnout rates are the lowest. It’s puzzling, Jarvis admits.

“One theoretical argument for why that may be true is that the net gain of education is decreasing as it relates to politics,” she explains, “and we’ve become a more mobile society. Some political scientists have worried that we no longer have the social connections to politics that folks may have had in the first half of the 20th century.”

In a study conducted with Dr. Lisa Montoya, the results of which will be released this month, Jarvis looked at the voting habits of Americans age 18 to 24. Young Americans were divided into three different groups: college students (those who attend school but do not work for pay), working youth (those who work for pay but do not attend school) and student workers (those who go to school and work simultaneously, whether attending a four-year university or doing vocational training).

The third group—student workers—were the most likely to vote.

“It’s a democratic finding that these young folks who are pulling themselves up and engaging in all types of activities are more likely to vote,” she says. “We believe they are gaining access to more opportunities for mobilization by putting themselves in two different contexts—the campus and the workplace.”

The legitimacy of a democracy depends on turnout. We do not have a legitimate, stable system unless citizens participate. Dr. Sharon JarvisRegardless of which young people are voting or why they are or are not voting, it is important that young Americans get out and vote. The health of our system depends on it.

“Democracy depends on the consent of the governed,” Jarvis says. “If current voting trends continue, it is feared that by 2020 less than 25 percent of Americans will be making 100 percent of the electoral decisions. That is not a democracy.”

Starting to vote now, at a young age, cultivates good habits. Studies have shown that if someone votes once, they are more likely to vote again. A vote in 2004 may mean a more democratic citizen in the long run.

Further, when blocks of people vote, politicians listen. Because older citizens have such a strong record of turning out for the polls, issues such as Medicare and Social Security have remained closer to the forefront for politicians. The best way to draw attention to issues important to young Americans is for young Americans to vote. And in doing so, they fortify the system of government this country is founded on.

“The legitimacy of a democracy depends on turnout,” Jarvis says. “We do not have a legitimate, stable system unless citizens participate.”

More information about how to get registered and get involved in the Nov. 2 election can be found below.

Registering to Vote

The deadline to register to vote in Texas for the Nov. 2 election is Monday, Oct. 4.

Campus advisory from the Travis County Voter Registrar, Sept. 23, 2004: Students should be aware of obsolete voter registration applications (postcard-sized at 4x6 inches) that may be in circulation on The University of Texas at Austin campus. Travis County Voter Registrar Nelda Wells Spears advises all university students, faculty and staff registering to vote or updating addresses to make sure to use the new application (8x6 inches with a pocket for mailing a copy of the voter’s identification). For more information, visit the Travis County Tax Office’s advisory for campus [PDF format].

There are numerous opportunities to register to vote on campus. Both the University Democrats and the College Republicans have voter registration cards available at their tables on the main mall. Several organizations, including UT Votes and the University Democrats, have deputized people to register to vote. Representatives will be out around campus and the surrounding area registering voters.

You can also complete an online voter registration application and mail it back to the county. You can access the application for voter registration at the Travis County Tax Office Web site.

If you’re interested in becoming deputized to register voters, the University Democrats offer the opportunity on Wednesday, Sept. 8. You do not have to be a Democrat to attend and become deputized.

Travis County is also holding mass deputization sessions on Sept. 7 and Sept. 14. The contact telephone number for both the Travis County voter registration application and the mass deputization sessions is 512-854-9473.

Information about registering to vote outside of Texas is available from the Federal Election Commission.

Voting Early

In Travis County, early voting runs from Oct. 18-29. Information on how to vote early can be found on the Early Voting page of the Travis County Tax Office Web site.

Voting by Mail

The Texas Secretary of State Office has information for Student Voters, including how to obtain a ballot by mail.

Students from out of state should check with the elections board in their home state.

Watching the Debates

  • Sept. 30 (Thursday): First presidential debate
  • Oct. 5 (Tuesday): Vice presidential debate
  • Oct. 8 (Friday): Second presidential debate
  • Oct. 13 (Wednesday): Third presidential debate

Ways to Get Involved

The following campus organizations have opportunities to get involved in the presidential election.

Vivé Griffith

Related Stories:

Related Sites:

Office of Public Affairs
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Austin, Texas

Fax 512-471-5812

  Updated 2014 October 13
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