In the last two election cycles, poll workers witnessed a lot more of what had previously been a true rarity: voters under age 25. Indeed, studies suggest that young voters are closing the age gap at the ballot box. The question is, will this uptick in youth participation continue as a major force in the 2008 presidential race? As the January 16 deadline approaches for registering to vote in the Massachusetts presidential primary, Boston University initiatives, both inside and outside the classroom, are under way to sustain the youthful political momentum on campus.
Fewer than half of 18-to-24-year olds cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election, compared with 72 percent of those 55 and older. But between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, both registration and voting by young adults increased by 7 percent and 11 percent respectively, the largest increase of any demographic group. The increase continued in the 2006 race, and the spike has led some analysts to predict that young people will be a key voting block in 2008.
Still, Bruce Schulman, a College of Arts and Sciences history professor and director of graduate studies, points out that this isn’t the first time young voters have seemed poised to make a big electoral splash. Similar scenarios emerged, with disappointing results in terms of turnout and impact, in 1972 and in 1992. But Schulman says things might change in 2008. For one thing, previous increases in young people casting ballots were part of a general rise in voter turnout across all age groups; this year, youth participation is notably higher. He also notes, anecdotally, that for the first time, three different student groups have visited his classes this year in order to encourage people to register and vote. In addition, when young people turned out in numbers during previous elections, their votes were split between the parties; today, he says, “it seems that younger voters are skewing much more Democratic.”
In fact, many experts have attributed the recent surge in youth voting to a post-9/11 cultural awakening. Nevertheless, any boost in civic engagement due to the terrorist attacks of 2001 probably isn’t sustainable on its own, says Charles White, a School of Education associate professor of curriculum and teaching. White, who directs BU’s Projects in Civic Engagement, four curricula on participation in government and public policy debates, says that the upcoming election may be the last chance to maintain that energy and drive.
“9/11 is going to drift from people’s memory,” says White, “and we have an opportunity right now to keep up that momentum of political engagement.”
Such opportunities include a course for BU students called Project Citizen — first offered in spring 2007, and again next semester — which is focused, White says, “on the things you do between elections, such as researching problems in your community, developing action plans to influence public policy makers, anticipating critics, and getting the word out to gain allies and pressure policy makers.” As a final project, students present a policy initiative at a mock legislative hearing.
As for voting itself, White calls it “a big, iconic, democratic ritual. It’s what brings us together.” He notes that more students may be inclined to register for the 2008 Massachusetts primary since the commonwealth has joined 22 other states holding primaries on February 5, 2008, a date known as Super Tuesday.
Even if BU students opt out of casting local ballots, White’s message remains: “Vote somewhere.”
“It may be that they’re eligible to vote in a state where the election is going to be very close,” he says. “In which case, vote there, but vote.”
For information on how to register to vote in the Massachusetts presidential primary, visit the Boston Election Department’s Web site or call 617-635-3767 before January 16, 2008.
Chris Berdik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.