TNGG: Will Gen Y Vote in 2012?

Abstract: While 2008 saw a spike in Gen Y at the polls, the reality is that turn-out was still well below what it “should be.” This article explores the real impact of the youth vote in 08, why it could be more in 12, and some barriers holding the Millennial voting bloc back.

Originally posted on TNGG.

There’s talk that young voters are disappointed and disillusioned. Back in 2008, Barack Obama tapped into Gen Y’s progressive values and in turn we didn’t just turn out to vote, we got involved. However, today there’s worry we might sit out in 2012.

Throughout the ’08 election, the enthusiasm gap between McCain and Obama was palpable. A sizable chunk of young volunteers knocked on doors, filled stadiums and worked tirelessly to register first time voters. All of this contributed to the engine of optimism powering the movement.

And, while signs and t-shirts are great, in elections only the votes cast on Tuesday count. So it’s worth asking, does Obama need our votes to win? The short answers is no.

Young people were key for Obama in the Democratic Primaries (Iowa specifically), but, by the numbers Gen Y had far less influence over Obama’s general election victory—every state but two (Indiana and North Carolina) still would have gone the same way even if no one under 30 voted in 2008.

What this does not mean is young people don’t matter in elections. The potential impact of the youth vote remains huge.

Compared to past trends the youth vote hit a dramatic high in 2008,  but compared to overall turnout it was still fairly weak.

The 2008 general election saw the highest overall voter turnout since 1968, with 57% of the total voting age population (i.e. total population over 18 years old) turning out at the polls. Compare this to only 51% of all eligible voters between 18 and 29. That’s up 11 points from a low of 40% in 1996, but still lagging behind the national average.

Now, consider this lack-luster turnout with the following in mind:

Here’s the pudding: Between 1968 and 1976, the Baby Boomers were turning 18 years old. The total voting age population (i.e. total population over 18 years old) increased by 4 million new voters per year. Over the next 24 years (Gen X) the rate of growth slowed dramatically to just 2.2 million per year. Today, as Gen Y finally enters the fray, the rate is ticking up again. Between 2000 and 2008 the voting age population increased by 3.25 million/year.

By 2016, Millennials will be the single largest voting block by age. This represents enormous potential, but the question remains, how can you get young people to vote?

It seems odd that generation WHY, passionate about the issues and always ready with an opinion isn’t putting their money where their mouths are. So what gives?

First, historic trends don’t come from nowhere. As Campaigns & Elections notes, “pollster John Zogby calls nonvoting a ‘life-cycle matter,’ in which young voters are ‘more concerned with their careers, relationships, more personalized things’ than with ‘the broader community.” And, 15% of people who didn’t vote could not cite a single reason!

Second, archaic voting policies may be keeping turnout low. A recent Rock the Vote study of all 50 state’s voting systems revealed outdated voter registration practices, barriers to casting ballots, and failures to adequately prepare young people for active citizenship are widespread. “Among the top scorers, most offer Same Day Registration or online registration and some type of ‘convenience voting’ (early vote or vote-by-mail) and over half include high school testing for civics education.”

More to the point, as a friend of mine said, “If I can research a political candidate and tweet about them while I’m taking a sh*t, why can’t I register to vote online?” For better or worse, Millennials live in a world that’s defined by digital, but much of the political process remains stuck in the past.

Last month at Facebook HQ Obama asked young voters to “double down” in 2012. But at the same time, he knows this generation can take him only so far. Expectations are high, but reasonable.

Still, with Boomers rapidly pouring into retirement homes and golf courses, Gen Y is in danger of becoming eclipsed politically if they keep away from the polls. Older demographics love to vote and play bridge, and, they are used to the archaic voting practices that turn young people off from participating, further exacerbating the gap.

The simple truth is this: as a voting bloc, Gen Y represents a huge potential that has only begun to be tapped. We’re young and independent, but our parents will be dictating out lives until we get into the ballot box in a big way.

Do you think Millennials will step up in 2012? How can voting practices become more practical for Gen Y?

**Much thanks to Patrick Beamish for assisting in the research of this article.

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