Will the Youth Vote Come Out for Obama?

On Tuesday, the least reliable age group in American politics may finally make its presence known.

The notoriously fickle constituency of young voters is at its most energized level in decades—mobilized, polls say, by the current economic crisis, dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, and the candidacy of Democratic Candidate Barack Obama.

Up to 50 to 52 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds are expected to vote this year—compared to 49 in 2004, according to Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote, a youth voting advocacy group.

But predictions of campaigns buyoed by youth support have proven illusory before. In 2004, for example, youth voting, measured as a percentage of the overall vote, remained stagnant.

Political apathy and confusing absentee voting rules have depressed youth turnout on past election days. And while the apathy may have lessened, a labyrinth of voting regulations remains, leaving experts guessing just how much of the youth vote will materialize—and whether it will last past 2008.

“I do think the youth vote is going to change this time around,” said Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School who studies politics and social movements. “But if I had a dollar for every time someone has said that to a reporter over the years, I’d probably be able to retire.”

A PERFECT STORM?

Political interest among young adults has been on the rise since 2000, after decades of relative disinterest.

In 2004, youth turnout in the presidential election jumped 11 percent, according to the final election report of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Four years later, the Institute of Politics Youth Survey indicates that young voters’ distaste for the status quo has intensified, fed by growing concern about the economy.

Such a desire for change has historically raised projections of youth turnout. Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at the Kennedy School, cited the example of Republican Ronald Reagan’s 1980 run against incumbent Jimmy Carter, which led to an increase in youth voting.

This time, with a Republican in the White House and change in high demand, Democrats are poised to benefit from a projected youth voter spike. Obama leads Republican John McCain by 26 percent among 18-to-24-year-olds, according to the most recent Institute of Politics survey—nearly double the lead Democratic challenger John Kerry held over George W. Bush in 2004.

Obama himself may prove one of the biggest drivers of turnout increases for young adults.

“Obviously one of the things that I give Senator Obama credit for is the way he’s energized people of our generation,” said Colin J. Motley ’10, president of the Harvard Republican Club.

But even in earlier periods of political engagement, young voters struggled to pass the only test that matters: filing their ballots.

GOING POSTAL

Voters at college or in the military face a maze of state regulations when trying to vote absentee.

“The increase in youth interest has not been matched by an increase in the ease of voting,” said Alice J. Gissinger ’11, the student leader of H-VOTE, an IOP program aimed at aiding student voters.

Each state sets its own absentee voting regulations in line with federal law, often with more stringent requirements for first-time voters.

In Michigan, Louisiana, and Tennessee, voters who have registered by mail must vote once in person before they can vote absentee. Missouri, Nevada, and Kansas require copies of state IDs with absentee applications if the prospective voter has not voted there in person before.

College voters in Massachusetts face other exacting requirements. Registering by mail in the Commonwealth requires a state ID with a residential address, but many undergraduates don’t have dorm addresses printed on their IDs. The Cambridge Election Commission lets Harvard students register by mail with their home-state and Harvard IDs, Gissinger said, but students at other schools aren’t so lucky.

“Other college students have to get a signature form their dean,” Gissinger said. “Sometime students are asked to give proof of residency in the form of a utility bill or a telephone bill, and of course, students here don’t have that.”

In response to these rules, some are trying to facilitate youth voting using technology. At Harvard, the four-year-old H-VOTE program stages registration drives, mails registration and absentee applications, and keeps a database of 1,733 registered student voters, allowing the organization to alert students about registration deadlines or to vote on election day.

GRABBING DIGITS

National political campaigns have also used digital media to mobilize young voters.

Obama’s campaign collected millions of cell phone numbers this summer, promising to send supporters a text-message announcement of its vice-presidential pick. Now those numbers can be used to push supporters to vote.

“Every student I know who is working on the Obama campaign or supporting Obama is going to get several text messages the day of the election telling them to vote,” said McCarthy, the Kennedy School lecturer, who also advises the Obama campaign.

But even if digital organizing is here to stay, high youth turnout could prove an aberration.

Patterson said youth participation in non-presidential elections is now at “an all-time low.” As the country’s political attention shifts past the 2008 presidential race, he said, youth turnout may slip.

And even new technology can sometimes fail to deliver, as the Harvard College Democrats can attest.

“In the old Facebook, you could search [for people] via state, which made it easy to find the states of Harvard students,” said Joanna I. Naples-Mitchell ’10, the Dems’ spokeswoman. “The new Facebook eliminated that feature, so we really had to ramp up our efforts on campus to find out what states people were from.”

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at cmarks@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Alexander R. Konrad can be reached at akonrad@fas.harvard.edu.