Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=104571
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 10:28:04 PM CST
WASHINGTON -- Election Day was no different than any other for Elisa Backof. The 26-year-old nurse woke up, left for work, then went home to care for her 10-month-old baby girl. Nowhere along the way did she stop to vote.
“I guess I have a problem with politics in general,” the Maryland native said. Politicians “do a lot of talking and not all of what they say happens.”
Backof’s outlook on voting may bother a lot of people. Her story is by no means unique, though.
While early numbers signal 2008 was among the best years on record in terms of young voter turnout, nearly half of all 18- to 29-year-olds once again skipped the presidential election.
Somewhere between 21.6 million and 23.9 million young Americans voted on Election Day, according to preliminary projections from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, or CIRCLE. That represents a gain of at least 2.2 million young voters over 2004, a year that turned around previous declines in young voter turnout.
Despite such clear and encouraging gains, the question remains, why, in an election billed by many as the most important in at least a generation, did such a large chunk of the youth stay home?
This year’s nonvoters fall into one of two groups, said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE at Tufts University. The first is people unhappy with either of the candidates, which would include conservative voters who weren’t drawn to the McCain campaign.
The second, much larger group, Levine said, is people not up to speed on politics and current events, and “that is disproportionately young people who aren’t in college.”
For those in college, the reasons for not voting can be many.
Mia Grant, a 21-year-old student at Boston University, said part of the reason she did not vote is that by the time she looked in to getting an absentee ballot, it was too late.
“I’m kind of apathetic, which is kind of bad to say, so yeah, I didn’t get my things together in time,” Grant said.
Grant also did not believe her voice would matter . Either way, she said, her home state of Texas was going to go for John McCain.
Kevin Flatt, a mechanical engineering student at Texas Tech University, spent his election mostly in and out of class. Much like Grant, he did not vote because he never realized he was not registered.
He doesn’t feel bad, though, “because the nation as a whole will probably vote the same way I would have anyway,” he said last week. Still, the Obama supporter said, “you should have heard what my sister said to me when I told her I wasn’t going to vote.”
Ordinarily, most nonvoters come from a background where politics was either rarely or never discussed at home, according to Craig Rimmerman, a professor of public policy and political science at Hobart and William Smith College.
“If you don’t get it at home, then you’ve got to get it at educational institutions in more formal ways, and that’s just a hit-or-miss proposition,” Rimmerman said.
Another reason for weak turnout among young Americans may be a lack of quality Web access, particularly in poor urban and rural areas. Absent better access, Americans can wind up uninformed and thus unmotivated to participate in elections, according to Stephanie Young, a spokeswoman for Rock the Vote.
Nevertheless, this election “has totally dispelled the notion of an apathetic youth population,” Young said. She pointed not only to the projected rise in turnout this year, but also gains in young voter turnout during the primaries, 2006 midterm elections, and 2004 general election.
Curtis Gans sees it differently.
Gans, the director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, at American University, said he does not necessarily consider recent gains in youth turnout sustainable.
“This year it is an Obama phenomenon,” he said. “Four years ago it was an anti-Bush phenomenon.”
Gans blamed several factors, including “measurable decline in the quality and quantity of civic education” both at home and in school; media that turns people into “consumers and spectators,” rather than participants in a democracy; and dwindling trust of politicians.
“You put all those things together, it’s a wonder that anybody does vote,” Gans said.
Most observers credit Barack Obama’s candidacy with driving youth turnout; indeed, young voters broke for Obama by a margin of 2 to 1. When the candidate takes office, though, the challenge becomes how to keep young voters engaged.
One solution, according to Peter Levine of CIRCLE, is for the Obama administration, as well as the new Congress, to enlist young Americans in the effort to pass new legislation. Another solution, he said, is for Congress to pass the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act, which would help Americans pay for college in exchange for one year of national service.
For her part, Backof says the only issue she can imagine ever driving her to the polls is “anything having to do with health care or children in general.”
Meantime, though, she continues going about her routine while trying not to complain.
She said not voting does leave her voiceless, which can be frustrating because “if you don’t vote, you don’t have a say."