Analyzing the Youth Vote

Gathering considers why students will turn out (or not) this fall.
July 9, 2008

Will students turn out to vote this fall?

Many experts at a Washington gathering Tuesday predicted that they would -- although some said public attention to the issue so far has been oversimplified. The meeting took place at the national conference of Campus Progress, a left-leaning organization, but the discussion included some conservatives.

Ben Adler, staff writer for the newspaper and Web site Politico , started the discussion by noting that voting by those under 30 has been increasing -- and increasingly Democrat. Adler said that the key question was why.

Heather McGhee, a law student at the University of California at Berkeley, who worked for the John Edwards campaign, rejected the common belief that younger voters always vote liberal and become more conservative with age. She said today's young voters grew up in a politically and economically conservative environment, and so know what that means -- and are rejecting it.

“I think we are really reacting to the time we grew up in, and saying it's time to invest in the common good, in the common people and bring the country forward in a way that is truly ... progressive” she said.

Adler posed the same question to Amanda Carpenter, national political reporter of, a conservative Web site. Carpenter argued that what students want is change, not necessarily liberalism. She noted that Ron Paul (who ran an unconventional campaign that never had a serious chance of winning the Republican competition) won strong student support in many states.

“What the GOP should be doing to tap into that change idea, I don't know,” she said. “It's tough right now, because John McCain is somewhat of an establishment candidate.”

Another issue discussed was why young people with at least some college education voted at higher rates this primary season than those without.

Robert (Biko) Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters, which focuses on working class voters, said it was a question of priorities. “I think, we as progressives, particularly us as young people of color who are working class, first people ... of our families to go to college, we have to continue to push these candidates around the issues that are important to us,” he said.

He said until candidates talk about these issues, the young non-educated won't become involved.

He cited an example of a visit of Sen. Barack Obama to Milwaukee in which he spoke frankly about what he "thought the problem[s] were related to violence" to a gathering that included some young black people. "After he gave that speech, people lit up, they went to their homes and to their communities, ready to mobilize for him,” he said.

Maria Terésa Petersen, executive director of Voto Latino, explored why Latino youth voting rates are lower than those of other groups. She noted that young Latinos have been organized, such as in the immigration marches of 2006. “However, we haven't had the capacity to translate that to the polls,” she said.

Petersen said the media has portrayed the Latino vote as “monolithic” and “uninterested” and “immigration is the only thing driving us.” However, she said immigration may be a “political awakening" that could focus voters on a range of issues, and has. She noted a poll Voto Latino's Web site where voters have indicated a range of issues affecting them, including the war and the economy.

McGhee said that there are ways to encourage many more students and young people to vote. She cited the idea of letting people register on Election Day, not just in advance. “It's something that disproportionately improves youth turnout, because we move so much, and improves the turnout of the elderly and people of color,” she said.


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