As state deadlines pass, voter registration numbers are reaching record highs. The Associated Press estimated last week that nationwide there have been more than 9 million new registrations in the past six months, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans four to one. Get-out-the-vote groups that target young people are reporting unprecedented numbers of young voters added to the rolls. This week Rock the Vote, one of the largest nonpartisan GOTV organizations, surpassed 2.3 million registrations this election cycle.
“The numbers are staggering,” said Andy Karsch, director of Rock the Vote’s bus project, which has been touring around the country since September. Through its bus tour, Rock the Vote has secured more than 1 million new registrants in the past month alone. The Obama campaign would not give out specifics on the number of voters it had registered through its outreach effort, Vote for Change, but Chris Hughes, the campaign’s director of online organizing, said that the website had been “hugely successful; it surpassed all our expectations. Almost everyone who came to the website followed through with the whole registration process.” On a local level, a group called New Era Colorado has registered more than 11,000 voters, according to executive director Steve Fenberg. “The registration levels are enormous in Colorado,” he said. “There’s an excitement on the ground I’ve never seen before.”
The number of newly registered Democrats eclipses Bush’s margins of victory in swing states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. In North Carolina Democrats have registered twice as many voters as Republicans, helping to put the state in play. A big reason is the number of new young voters, 18- to 29-year-olds who favor Obama by upwards of twenty points.
In Virginia, once a Republican bastion, the State Board of Elections had received 306,000 new voter registration applications by the end of September: 42 percent of them were from people younger than 25. In Pennsylvania the number of registered Democrats has increased by about 13 percent, thanks in part to heavy targeting of the state’s large college population. Since many states’ deadlines still haven’t passed, the exact percentage of new registrants nationally who are under 30 won’t be clear until after the election. Historically, new registrants tend to be younger, and both campaigns and nonpartisan efforts have overwhelmingly targeted the demographic.
Of course, registration is only part of the puzzle–getting voters to the polls is the ultimate goal. Yet the registration numbers thus far bode well for November. According to the US Census Bureau, only 49 percent of people ages 18 to 29 voted in 2004, but 81 percent of those who were registered voted. Even among 18- to-21-year-olds, all new voters based on their age, roughly 80 percent of registrants voted. These rates of participation among registered young voters could spell a record high turnout in terms of raw numbers this election cycle.
What’s more, organizers are pointing to a number of factors that may indicate that there’s real substance behind all the talk of young voters this year. For one, youth turnout rose in the 2004 and 2006 elections, and it doubled and tripled in some states’ primaries in 2008, compared with 2000.
There are also the technological advancements that have served as vital communication tools in getting people registered and to the polls. GOTV groups like Rock the Vote are finding that the number of people they reach has expanded exponentially thanks to peer-to-peer networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. The Nation‘s Ari Melber has reported extensively on the Obama campaign’s effective use of new technology to reach voters, such as utilizing text messaging and their own networking site MyBO.
“All this targeting and talk is having an effect,” Fenberg said of his experience on the ground in Colorado. “People are plugged in, and we’re seeing more excitement than ever.”
Karsch said Rock the Vote’s staff has felt the same kind of excitement. “I’d be shocked if there wasn’t an unprecedented turnout,” he said. “This is a transitional election, and people want to be a part of it.” If the registration numbers are any indication, new young voters could change the game come November.