The almighty youth vote


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Ballot boxes all over the country felt pretty lonely on Tuesday.

Sure, they had election workers tending to them and making sure ballots were fully stocked. And, of course, older voters predictably made their way to the polls. But young people were largely missing on Tuesday.

In Iowa City and in several key elections all across the country, the youth turnout was abysmal.

One year ago, youth — those aged 18-29 — fueled the election of the nation’s first black president.

Beginning with the Iowa caucuses, young people not only voted in greater numbers, they volunteered, took off school to work on the campaign, and donated money.

Before 2008, how many candidates created Facebook pages or sent out important political information via text message? Now every candidate running for political office — whether for governor or dogcatcher — has a Facebook page, a website, and would love to get your cell-phone number. In 2008, youth were an absolutely critical component, a major piece to the puzzle in the election of Barack Obama.

Young people transformed politics.

One year later, we have to ask ourselves, “What happened?” It’s not only Iowa City student precincts that performed poorly. Youth turnout barely registered in New Jersey and student-saturated Virginia. There are some locally and nationally who will look at Tuesday’s results and argue that students are simply apathetic. To them, 2008 was an aberration — no Obama to vote for, no youth turnout.

It’s easy to make such an argument, but it’s too simplistic and not entirely correct. Yes, too many students are apathetic. Many are uninterested and disengaged from politics. But in 2007, UI students voted in record numbers to defeat the 21-only ordinance. The UI’s current budget crisis and proposed $100 surcharge and 6 percent tuition increase has generated a lot of on-campus debate. And every single day I’m asked to attend an event or sign up for a cause.

The truth is that in many instances young people are engaged. Yet, it’s also true that youth are too often are completely absent when they don’t feel a direct connection to an issue. And it’s true that in elections that don’t spike a high level of interest and excitement, young people sometimes don’t bother to vote.

While Iowa City’s City Council elections are nonpartisan, a lack of youth turnout contributed to Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey. Democrats are increasingly reliant on young voters and youth turnout. Not only did Obama win the youth vote by a nearly 3 to 1 margin, youth made up a greater share of the overall electorate in 2008. When young people don’t vote, it’s more difficult for Democrats to win.

According to available exit poll data, 18-29 year olds were only 10 percent of all voters in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. In 2008, youth made up 21 percent of the electorate. In 2008, Obama received 60 percent of the youth vote in Virginia and became the first Democrat to carry Virginia since 1964. In 2009, the Democratic candidate, Creigh Deeds, received 44 percent of the youth vote. Deeds actually lost voters under 30 to the Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell.

While Deeds was far from perfect, his campaign never made young voters a priority. The result: anemic youth turnout in Virginia and a defeat. You don’t have to act like Obama, talk like him, or even look like him to inspire young voters. You do, however, have to talk to youth, ask youth for their votes, and give them a reason to vote for you.

There’s no excuse for the lack of student turnout in Tuesday’s City Council election. With two students on the ballot, student turnout in support of Jeff Shipley and Dan Tallon should have been greater.

But let’s be careful not to give up on young voters in 2010.

For Democratic candidates, youth turnout will be critical to their success. And candidates running in 2010 who want youth to turn out have to go out and make a compelling case for them to do so.

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