Don't underestimate the younger voter
Some political analysts say that older voters have the biggest sway in this fall's election. But guest columnists Thomas Goldstein and Thomas Bates argue that younger voters are increasing in participation and influence. Don't underestimate the political punch of the Millennial Generation.
Special to The Times
A RECENT Seattle Times headline read, "Seniors' political punch may sway midterms." The article presented a portrait of an older electorate with total control over the outcome of November's general election.
It is our pleasure to report that rumors of young voters' irrelevance are premature.
First, a touch of background about young voters: The most distinctive attribute of the rising Millennial Generation — which generally includes those born after 1980 — is its size. The Millennials are the largest generation in the history of the United States — larger than the baby boomers and twice the size of Generation X. Nearly 13,000 young people turn 18 every day across America, introducing 9 million new potential young voters this cycle.
In fact, by the year 2015, Millennials will make up one-third (yes, one-third) of the eligible electorate. Needless to say, investment in young voters is a growth market.
The older electorate is relatively stable: Very few people will change a lifelong habit of voting or not voting. But even the slightest increase in young-voter participation changes elections. If youth turnout increases modestly — say 2 percentage points (which is the equivalent of the national increase from 2004 to 2008) — it would be enough to alter the outcomes in many elections across the state.
It isn't exactly news that young people tend to vote at lower rates than older voters. The more interesting story is that even if young people turn out at lower rates, they can dramatically affect the election landscape and outcomes. That happened most visibly in the 2008 presidential election, but also in certain nonpresidential elections closer to home.
The approval of Referendum 71, the election of a young mayor in Tacoma, and two victorious young City Council candidates in Spokane are all evidence of the efficacy of targeting young voters. Moreover, the highest turnout in the state in 2009 was in the 43rd Legislative District, which has the greatest concentration of young voters.
Even with mounting evidence, too many campaigns write off young voters, and this tired habit has made the prophecy of low turnout a self-fulfilling one. It almost reads as a new definition of madness: Time and time again, campaigns don't invest time and resources into young people, and then are surprised when they don't mail in their ballots.
When campaigns focus on "perfect" or "near perfect" voters, namely those who have participated in three or four of the past four elections, young people whose voting records may be perfect but too short are not targeted for those glossy mail pieces. It's a bit like throwing a party, not inviting someone ... and then wondering why they didn't show up.
Luckily, we're doing something about it. Forward-looking organizations and campaigns have tested methods to engage young people and have committed resources to make them reliable voters. And we're seeing results: For the past three major election cycles — yes, even pre-Obama — the turnout of young people has steadily increased.
We know what works: Make sure young people are registered to vote, give them relevant information in an engaging way, and run campaigns that connect with their values.
This fall, the wheels are in motion. All the pieces are in place for young voters to eclipse conventional wisdom and lay claim to the political firmament.Thomas Goldstein, left, is executive director of the Washington Bus. Thomas Bates is vice president for civic engagement at Rock the Vote. Both are Seattle residents.