The Power of the Youth Bloc

Article excerpt

CIVIC ADVOCATES AND CAMPAIGN STRATEGISTS SAY THIS POPULATION COULD SWING THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

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 counterparts. 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 CIR-CLE - 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. …