Getting out the young voter
“Are you guys registered?” said Nico Thornley, 18, to a group of students waiting for the campus shuttle service at one of the bus stops inside the University of Nevada, Reno. The answer was a chorus of, “Yes, we are.”
A freshman majoring in political science, Thornley is an intern at the New Voters Project, a non-partisan “youth voter mobilization campaign” that came to Reno in January this year. Throughout the day, Thornley and his fellow interns and volunteers at UNR go around the campus, registering people for the coming election. They are a part of a large group of young people who are canvassing all over Reno, Sparks, Carson City and Fallon to get 18- to 24-year-olds to vote in November.
“The first step is to register as many young people as we can,” said Jake Oster, 24, local canvassing director at the New Voters Project. “The second step is to make sure that we get them at the polls on Election Day.”
If turnout does climb among the young, it will be a sharp change. Young voters have a reputation as the most apathetic voting bloc in the populace. In a story on the Young Voters Project last week, the New York Times reported, “After dismal turnout by young voters in 2000, surveys this year show that interest in the election among the young is near the highest level it has reached at any time since 18- to 20-year-olds were given the vote in 1972. And state election officials say registration of new young voters is coming in at levels they have not seen in years.”
However, election year press reports often see increased-turnout trends (usually predicted by election officials) that fail to materialize in elections.
“We are aiming at young people because, in the past, young people have not been coming to the polls,” Oster said. “Studies have shown that young people don’t vote not because they don’t care, but because they have never been asked to vote.
“In the last election, some of the main topics were prescription drugs and Social Security. Politicians have not been talking to young people about issues that concern them. So the goal of the New Voters Project is to make politicians pay attention to us.”
The project, supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and state public interest research groups, may be working: Studies of the project in six states, including Nevada, show increased registration. Whether that will translate into increased turnout won’t be known until the election. But while the Project has been operating in the state most of the year, NevadaObserver.com points out that “less than 28 percent of those eligible” voted in the Nevada primary election, though there is no age breakdown.
“Professor Don Green and Professor Alan Gerber at Yale University found a consistent eight-point increase in voter turnout because of the Get Out the Vote canvassing,” said Oster about one of the strategies the project employs. “That comes from direct face-to-face interaction, which can be done in the streets, in front of the store, at a concert or at other events.”
Katie Selenski, 25, state director for the New Voters Project, agreed about the project’s positive impact.
“It’s very successful,” she said. “We’re finding that as we get closer to the election, more young people are paying attention. I think that’s because the candidates understand that young people can be a decisive factor in this close election.”
President Bush and Sen. Kerry have agreed to address 12 leading concerns of youth, answering questions that young voters can submit through the New Voters Project Web page (www.newvotersproject.org). The site will display the candidates’ replies to submitted questions.
Few people approached by the project are now refusing to register to vote—as few as one or two out of 10.
“Some people say they don’t care,” said Sally Welch, 20, another political-science junior, who is working as an intern for New Voters Project at the university. “But that is just what makes us want to work twice as hard. They are the people we are trying to reach—people who don’t want to be involved.”
What increased turnout among young voters—if it happens—will mean politically is unclear. Young voters tended to vote Democratic in the 1970s, Republican during the Reagan presidency and Democratic in the Clinton years.
Moreover, get-out-the vote drives can have unexpected results. In 1972, the presidential campaign of George McGovern poured huge resources into voter drives. But post-election studies indicated that McGovern’s supporters were so highly motivated that they were already registered, so his campaign in effect spent the autumn registering mostly Nixon supporters. In this year’s Iowa caucuses, candidate Howard Dean attracted many young voters who, however, ended up mostly supporting John Kerry.
Much depends on young voters realizing, on their own, the role they can play in the future of American politics.
“It’s really about young people talking to young people about what they care about and how they have a huge stake in the outcome of the elections," said Selenski, summing up the basic concept of the New Voters Project. "[Our message is that] no matter where you lie in the political spectrum, no matter what your political opinions may be, you should vote."