Could Youth Be a Swing Vote this November?

In the traditionally low-turnout midterm elections, young people need an incentive to cast their ballots
students helping others register to vote
“Twenty states have online registration, with four more planning to add that option,” says Peter Levine. Here, students help others register to vote prior to the 2012 elections. Photo: Alonso Nichols
October 21, 2014

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The midterm elections on Nov. 4 will determine which party will control Congress for the next two years. In a half dozen close Senate races, young people, who recently have tilted Democratic, could decide the outcome.

Peter Levine, associate dean for research at the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, keeps a close watch on how young people vote. He says that youth are often less engaged in midterm elections than in presidential elections, but could still affect some tight races this year. The Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs and director of CIRCLE, Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, Levine recently spoke to Tufts Now about the youth vote and the upcoming election.

Tufts Now: What is the youth turnout expected to be in the midterm elections?

Peter Levine: Voting for all Americans goes up and down in a zigzag pattern, with presidential years always higher than midterms. The drop in midterm years is worse for young voters. Recently, younger voters have tilted strongly Democratic. Their inconsistent turnout has contributed to an oscillation in national politics, with Democrats doing much better in the years divisible by four. For instance, Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008, with strong youth support, but then very conservative Republicans swept the same state in 2010, when turnout—and particularly youth turnout—was lower.

Why does turnout go down?

One reason that turnout is higher in presidential years is that the race for president itself is consequential—and usually unpredictable. In contrast, 16 states do not have a Senate race at all this year, and the vast majority of House races have been determined by the district lines. So there is less to vote for in a midterm year. Second, there is much less campaigning. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each spent more than $1 billion on their respective campaigns in 2012. Some of that money funded grassroots and online campaigning efforts, which boost youth turnout. There is much less campaign activity in any midterm year—notwithstanding the TV ads we still see. Finally, politics attracts less news coverage in a midterm year, which means less discussion of the election, which means less excitement and interest.

Do young voters have trouble registering, and if so why?

Some do. In 2010, the last midterm year, nearly a quarter of young people who didn’t vote said that they did not know where or how to register or that they did not meet the registration deadline. Only 14 percent of adults over age 30 gave those two reasons. In 2012, we surveyed young adults and found that many did not know their states’ registration deadlines and rules.

The system is quite complex, subject to rapid change and different in every state. That is an unnecessary barrier. What company would ask customers to register more than a month before they can show up in person to claim the service? In the 21st century, we should not require people to register and then vote in a completely separate transaction. All citizens should be registered automatically, and failing that, voters should be able to register when they vote, at the polling place.

Would it help to have online registration?

Twenty states have online registration, with four more planning to add that option. Traditionally, reforms that make registration easier have not been found to raise turnout much, although doing so may still be a good idea. It is also possible that just lately, online voter registration has started to increase youth turnout in the states that offer it. The main reason is not that online registration makes it easier to register. Instead, it allows states to make their lists of registered voters available more quickly, and that means that campaigns can target newly registered voters with phone calls and reminders.

Will young voters affect the Senate vote in the swing states, races that will decide which party controls the Senate?

We are particularly interested in the youth vote in Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana and North Carolina, because in all four states, there is a reasonably competitive Senate race and either a large proportion of young adults—because the population is youthful—or a relatively strong tradition of youth turnout. In each of these states, young people could clearly be the decisive voting bloc.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.