Sunday, July 23, 2006

Turnout: whither them dang kids?

Seem to have read disparaging things about the youth vote recently. Supposed to be never there at all, and waste of time to pay it any attention, people making fun of Rock the Vote, etc. Interesting paper on the youth vote by David Nickerson, 'Hunting the elusive young voter'. Nickerson says that the trouble is effectively contacting young voters; they are at least twice as likely to move each year compared to older people. But, if you can contact them at same rate as older age groups, they have similar response to GOTV programs in terms of election day turnout. If that is true, situation is not hopeless. Paper can be downloaded from URL below:

D Nickerson. Hunting the elusive young voter. Journal of Political Marketing. forthcoming(?)
pre-publication copy from author's homepage:

Let's take a look at some numbers to see if these youth voters are as unreliable and dilatory as some people say. The graph below compares voter turnout in national elections as percent of Voting Eligible Population (VEP), that is, citizens of voting age not disqualified because in jail, on parole or probation. The numbers were taken from a paper by McDonald and Popkin (reference and link at end of this post). The data only go to the 2000 election, I am working on finding or developing data for later years.

Graph.--Adult and youth voter turnout as percent of Voting Eligbile Population.

The dark circles in the graph show turnout for voters over age twenty (adults). The open circles show turnout for those age eighteen to twenty (youth). The stars connected by the dotted line show the ratio of youth to adult turnout. First thing to note is that, using VEP, adult turnout in presidential elections is not falling dramatically, and the 2000 election brought us almost back to the high turnout days of the 50s and early 60s. Youth turnout started off quite high -it was 80% of adult turnout in1972, the first presidential election in which eighteen year olds could vote. After that it fell off, but for presidential years stayed on a plateau of 60% to 65% of the adult turnout until 1992. Admittedly, youth turnout has steadily declined during midterm Congressional elections. And as shown in the last turnout post, turnout for all groups took a dive in the next three elections, until 2004 when turnout was high again. So everyone shares blame for that. Also note that the youth turnout goes up in presidential elections when adult turnout goes up, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of adult turnout. So if there is an interesting, or close, or notable presidential election, youth will turn out. At least they did until 1992.

Seems to Votinglinks that youth turnout is not some mirage. Youth turnout is lower than that of adults, but during presidential years it held steady until 1992. When an election draws a high turnout among adults, the youth turnout will be higher also, both in absolute and relative terms. If the Nickerson article is correct, then perhaps the scorn exists because youth are frustrating to work with -they are difficult to contact. But once contacted they do seem to respond like their older, and supposedly wiser, fellow citizens. If youth voting has fallen off a cliff, it is something that has happened relatively recently.

Data for graph from Michael P. McDonald and Samuel Popkin. 2001. "The Myth of the Vanishing Voter." American Political Science Review 95(4): 963-974.

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