This post was originally published by Campus Progress.
The commentary on the youth voter turnout in 2010 is not particularly surprising. Even though initial youth turnout estimates of 20.9 percent put this year on par with, if not ever-so-slightly below, other recent midterms, there’s still the usual back-and-forth between advocates and media about whether youth showed up to the polls. We also see the usual pundits’ criticisms and disappointment in young people, as though the turnout rate is just about individual decision-making.
In an attempt to contribute a different perspective to the conversation, let’s step way back from today. Over the four decades since the voting age was lowered to 18, has anything been put into place to support ongoing youth voting? What processes and infrastructure exist to ensure youth voter turnout? Public, nonprofit, and private institutions that could help have varying commitments to sustained youth participation.
The first and most obvious place to begin looking for youth voter support is supported is youth-focused organizations, especially those that focus on political engagement. These are the folks spending hours upon hours canvassing, taking care of voter registration cards, arranging get out the vote (GOTV) efforts, phonebanking, and much more.
Yet, more often than not, these organizations are scraping by, trying to piece together private funding each year to pay the organizers doing this work. In 2004, $40 million was invested in youth voting by various philanthropic organizations, according to a 2006 article by Tobi Walker in the National Civic Review. This investment did turn out youth and led to important research about best practices. But the reality of nonprofit funding is that the interests and focus of funders change, leaving youth organizations that work on voting in an uncertain place each election cycle.
The second place to look is schools. While youth organizations have proven to be life-changing for some young people, public schools that have the widest reach. And one of the reasons public schools were created was to promote civic education—which makes it seem that encouraging voting in schools would shore up strong support. But the reality in which civic education plays out today, though, is nowhere near achieving this goal. Opportunities young people have to learn about democracy, to learn basic information about how government works, vary considerably by school and are scarcest where they are needed most—in schools serving low-income kids. School systems are not operating in a way that will equitably build communities of voters and civic actors.
The third place to look to supporting youth engagement is political parties. President Barack Obama’s campaign increased hopes that political parties had learned an important lesson about building a youth constituency. In 2010, we saw record millions spent on midterm campaigns by parties and candidates hoping to affect voter sentiment and consequent turnout. Yet the funds are too often invested in ad buys rather than strategies that promote engagement. Research has shown that having interactive conversations through canvassing can lead to a seven to ten percentage point increase in youth voting [PDF]. The personal, interactive strategies that have been proven successful with young voters require an intentional investment of time and money that the transactional campaign process has failed to provide.