While youth voting has declined precipitously since 1972, the year 18-year-olds first won the right to vote, there's a bright spot in the statistical picture, according to a national expert on youth civic engagement: African American youth.
"Since 1984"--the year of Jesse Jackson's run for the White House--"African American youth have actually caught up, in terms of voter registration rates and voter turnout rates, to their White counter-parts. And in some places, like Chicago, African American youth really, really surpass their White and Latino counterparts in all respects. It's quite impressive to see," says Dr. Mark Hugo Lopez, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland's school of public policy and research director of CIRCLE--the Center for Research and Learning on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Indeed, Lopez adds, Black voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds in the 2000 election actually surpassed that of White voters in the same age range. According to CIRCLE's analyses, 50 percent of African American citizens in that age range voted, compared with 48 percent of Whites, 39 percent of Asian Americans, 34 percent of Latinos and 32 percent of American Indians.
It's a surprise, Lopez admits. But is it also a success story?
Melanie L. Campbell, executive director and CEO of Black Youth Vote, part of the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation, strongly disputes that.
"Sure, it sounds like a success story, but it's a skewed success story. You have to put the numbers in perspective," Campbell says.
First of all, she argues, most analyses consider the 18- to 24-year-old group a truer measure of youth behavior, and, by that measure, African American turnout fell to 42 percent, slightly behind that of 18-to 24-year-old Whites, who registered a 44 percent turnout in 2000.
"People hear these (18-to 29-year-old) numbers and think they don't have to worry: 'Oh, you're doing better than White people,'" Campbell says, explaining that African Americans can't afford to consider a two-percentage-point lead in a single statistical category as "success."
"Our young people have power because they have the numbers--almost 40 percent of our vote is under the age of 35. But they are still not using those numbers," Campbell adds.
Welcome to the world of measuring youth voting, where analysts and advocates pore over every ebb and flow in the numbers and sometimes bitterly disagree over their meaning. If there's one area in which all agree--whether one is a campaign strategist, a scholar or a youth voting advocate--it's on the power of the youth bloc.
This power is still mostly potential, as is documented in depressing detail by a series of recent national surveys--from the National Association of Secretaries of State, from Yale and the Pew Charitable Trusts, not to mention CIRCLE's many analyses of youth and minority youth voting. Each takes as its point of departure the decline in turnout. It was 52 percent in 1972, when youth 18 to 24 were 18 percent of the population, fell to 17 percent in the 1998 mid-term elections and only rebounded to 37 percent during the 2000 campaign.
But even when there are no other incentives to address youth turnout, the numbers alone would make this population an alluring plum for both civic advocates and campaign strategists. The most recent Census update shows that 18- to 29-year-olds are a substantial voting bloc--a whopping 21 percent of eligible voters. The numbers are even higher in some of the key battleground states in the South and the West--Arizona and Arkansas, Louisiana and New Mexico, to name a few.
So both the Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards campaigns are planning an all-out push to peel off more of these votes.
"Our figures are showing that there are around 24 million young people eligible to vote and that only 10 million of them voted in 2000," says Sharon Castillo, spokeswoman for the Bush-Cheney campaign. "So weve been working very hard. We've recruited 106,000 Students for Bush. We're in 44 states and on 800 college campuses. We have a Students for Bush Web site, and we also have the twins--they're out working hard and campaigning for their father.
"We think this is going to be a close election, and we're committed to bringing in as many young voters as we can," Castillo adds.
Those sentiments are echoed at the Kerry-Edwards campaign.
"We're fighting for every vote this election cycle--we're not taking any votes for granted," says spokeswoman Devona Dolliole.
Noting that there are student operations on more than 1,000 college campuses, that Vanessa and Alexandra Kerry have been taking the battle to college campuses and that the candidates are planning an October swing through historically Black schools, she adds, "This election is shaping up as an enormous opportunity for young people to make history. All the signs are pointing to an unprecedented voter turnout among the young."
Lopez agrees: "My sense is that there is a lot more interest compared to 2000, and the word I've heard on the streets is that there's a lot more interest and young people seem to be becoming energized. There are more organizations trying to get out the youth vote and they're much more coordinated. In the battleground states, there are organizations like the New Voter Project out of George Washington University and the World Wrestling Entertainment group's "Smackdown the Vote!" (see sidebar below).
"There's also evidence from a couple of states, like Nevada and others, that voter registrations among young people are up. If that's the case, you might actually see more votes cast by young people this time around. The goal is to get another two million young people to vote relative to 2000, and I don't doubt that the goal can be met," Lopez adds.
Campbell says that Black Youth Vote will be doing its part to make sure the goal is met. "The importance of this election is that it has real potential for us to really see an upsurge in Black youth voting," she explains.
There are a couple of "shining examples," as she calls them. "If you look at last year, with the way young people organized around the affirmative action Supreme Court case," Campbell notes. Going a bit further back, to 2000, she cites the Florida A&M students who were barred from voting in the presidential election, then went out, organized and elected one of their own, Andrew Gillum, as a county commissioner to protect their interests.
"Now with all the things that are going on that our young people need to address--getting sent to Iraq, the education system crumbling around us, the fact that we have to protect our power because one million Black votes didn't get counted in 2000--we may see a tremendous upsurge at the polls this year."
'Rap the Vote'
Hip-Hop artists are encouraging young people to vote, but will their efforts actually move them to the polls?
Damien Robinson is 30 years old but has never voted in an election nor has he even registered to vote, until now. Publicity surrounding rap impresarios like Sean "Puffy" Combs aka P. Diddy and Russell Simmons encouraging young people to vote in the upcoming elections gave Robinson the extra push to get off the sofa and sign up, he said. But more importantly, Robinson added, he's concerned about present conditions of the country and public school systems.
"Honestly, it's a very big movement going on, and I never took the time before. I was always so busy with football, now I'm taking the time," said Robinson, a free safety with the Seattle Seahawks, while filling out paperwork at the South-Paw Music Hip-Hop Voter Registration Drive and free concert in Dallas last month.
Research shows that among the 42 million young adults ages 18 to 35, there are an equal number of non-voting Republicans as there are non-voting Democrats and non-voting Independents, said Dr. Mary Dixson, assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic participation. The institute was established at The University of Texas at Austin in 2000 to respond to growing political cynicism and disaffection in the United States.
"That whole age demographic is up for grabs," Dixson says. "Anybody who really wanted to mobilize that group could have an impact on an election. Anybody who has that vote can swing an election. I think one of the things you're seeing is kind of a perfect storm situation where you have a lot of different organizations that have come together at the same time to put an emphasis on the young African American and just generally the young vote."
Flip on the television and the message rages on the BETs, VH1s and MTVs--"Vote or Die." Go to a rap concert and "street teams" swoop down on partygoers, not to promote some unknown artist's record but to register new voters. Eminem, Ja Rule, Beyonce, Nelly, 50 Cent, Ashanti--they all say they're going to do it. Suddenly it's cool to vote.
But it actually goes beyond just being cool. Like the civil rights generation before them, the Hip-Hop crowd is worried about the lack of job creation and vanishing opportunities to make it into the middle class, and the ongoing expense of the War in Iraq, political observers say.
And many are still angry about what they saw in the 2000 election when more than a million minority votes weren't counted. While some remain disillusioned and say they won't vote because their voices won't count, others say the election four years ago taught them that one vote means more now than ever.
Simmons' Hip-Hop Action Network, one of the first groups to target minority youth through its Hip-Hop summits, says it has registered two million new voters in the past two years. Citizen Change, launched by Combs this summer, doesn't actually do voter registration, but Combs uses his brand name and fashion to get the word out about the importance of voting and to get Hip-Hoppers excited about the concept, a spokesperson said. And MTV and BET, both owned by Viacom, say they have registered 789,905 voters through their "Rock The Vote" and "Rap The Vote" campaigns. There are others including organizers of smaller Hip-Hop voter registration drives like the one held in Dallas which signed up 63 people on a Saturday afternoon. Even the national political parties are in on the act, with Hip-Hop themed fund-raisers and street teams of their own.
There are several groups targeting young voters with registration drives in hopes of getting 20 million or more young adults to the polls this fall. The goal, organizers say, is to make this young voting bloc--which includes but is not limited to minorities--a force politicians must court.
Dr. David A. Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, says he doesn't know if the likes of P. Diddy and Beyonce will actually move young voters to the polls in November. It's one thing to register young people, Bositis says, it's quite another to actually get them to vote.
"Young African Americans have been voting at very low rates in recent elections, and there's a question as to whether that's going to be enough to change that," Bositis says. "I don't want to say it can't be done, but it is a tough thing to do."
About 13 million African Americans voted in the 2000 election, of that only 1.3 million fell between the ages of 18 to 24--the age range used by the U.S. Census Bureau. A total of 8.6 million--representing all races--voted in the presidential election four years ago.
To say 20 million will go to the polls this year is highly unlikely and to some degree, unrealistic, Bositis contends. That said, organizers don't need 20 million to swing the election he adds.
"The people who are doing this can have a significant impact on the election if they get one to two million more voters," Bositis says. "Even a relatively modest increase can make a big difference."
--By Tracie Power…