Thomas Bates: The Young Voter Know-It-all at Family Dinner

Family dinners, a tradition that both my wife and I grew up with, are an important part of our growing household. First there were two of us. Now our four-month-old son joins us at the dinner table — either on a lap or on top of the table in his vibrating chair — to provide his commentary (“goo” and “gah” are acceptable answers; spit-up is not).

The first installment of the Family Dinner Download — the companion to Laurie David’s push to restore the family dinner — touched on the very subject that kept me away from family dinners for the past several weeks: young voters’ participation in the midterm elections.

I work for Rock the Vote and our central focus is engaging young people in the political process. Building on our work in 2008 when the organization registered 2.2 million people to vote and helped foster record youth turnout, in 2010 we embarked on our largest and most ambitious voter registration and turnout effort for a midterm election in our organization’s 20-year history. It was a success: We registered four times as many voters as we did in 2006 and focused our on-the-ground and digital efforts in the most youth-dense areas of the most heavily contested states.

I saw a lot and we learned a lot, so in the venerable mode of “(new) father knows best” let me help you play the role of the know-it-all at your family’s next dinner.

First, in true know-it-all fashion, you’ve got to disagree with the premise of the question. In the first Family Dinner Download, HuffPost asked: Why do you think so few young people turned out to vote this time?

“This time”? What does that mean? Compared to 2008? We all know that comparing a midterm election to a presidential election is like comparing a playoff game to the Super Bowl. Participation in all age groups is lower in a midterm election, not just among young people. If you want to compare youth turnout to other midterms, we’ve got something to talk about.

As it turns out, youth turnout in 2010 was pretty close to historical youth turnout for midterm elections. At 20.9 percent, 2010 youth turnout was the same as 2002 and 2.6 percent lower than in 2006, according to CIRCLE’s analysis of exit polls. In the areas where Rock the Vote, other youth-focused organizations, and campaigns engaged young people, turnout was actually up over 2006. For example, in Pennsylvania, we saw a 25 percent increase in votes cast over 2006 totals in the nine most youth dense precincts in Philadelphia that we aggressively targeted for voter registration and peer-to-peer contacts. In addition, organizations like the Student PIRGs saw a 35 percent increase in votes cast at Temple University. Youth-dense precincts at North Carolina Central University and the University of North Carolina showed a 100 percent increase in votes cast from 2006. The precinct at the heart of the University of Florida campus increased votes cast by 45 percent. (See precinct totals here.)

That said, young voters were a smaller share of the electorate than in 2008 when youth turnout increased by 2 percent over 2004 and all other age groups remained flat. It is true that older and angrier voters dominated the electorate in 2010. It was not because youth turnout was a lot lower, but because older voters’ turnout was significantly higher.

Second, true know-it-alls focus on the question you want to answer. The second question related to youth turnout HuffPost asked was: What would you do to encourage more young people to vote? Hey, thanks for asking!

The shortfall in young voter turnout is a result of what happens when candidates and campaigns fail to engage young people and ask them for their votes. It is like throwing a dinner party, not inviting someone to come, and then getting mad when they don’t show up. Young people simply weren’t invited to the dinner party.

Because they don’t have the same kind of voting history as older voters and move more frequently, they often don’t get mail and phone calls and knocks on their doors. Advertising dollars are less likely to be spent on the outlets they watch and on the platforms where they consume information. And frankly, it isn’t just that campaigns didn’t pay enough attention to this generation of voters; what they did actively turned off people looking for solutions. What they saw from candidates and outside interest groups was largely irrelevant to their lives and concerns.

Both parties missed an opportunity to engage young voters. Too many Democratic candidates failed to connect with the one age group that supported them. While every other age group supported Republicans, according to exit polls, voters under the age of 30 voted for the Democrats, with the youngest voters (18 to 24 year olds) gave Democrats a 19-point advantage. In turn, Republican candidates failed to make a compelling case to this generation, which happens to be the largest and fastest-growing demographic in the electorate and one Republicans cannot ignore.

So here are three things to do to encourage more young people to vote:

One, make sure young people are registered to vote. Sounds simple, but our antiquated laws make it too hard. Young people move frequently — a third of all young people have moved since the 2008 election — and need to re-register every time they do. Students away at school either have to register at school or go through the process of requesting an absentee ballot from home. Voter registration deadlines are often a month before Election Day, making it impossible for people of all ages to register to vote at the time when interest in the elections is highest. At Rock the Vote, we had nearly 10,000 people use our online voter registration system on Election Day. None of those people were eligible to vote because the deadlines had passed. Give me Election Day registration in every state!

Two, talk to them. Young people are searching for candidates who speak directly to them and address the things they want fixed, whether it is how to pay for college or finding a job in this economy. When they receive little engagement from candidates, young people are disconnected from the political process. Engagement has to be more widespread, not just the province of youth organizations and President Obama.

And, three, ask for their votes. Whether it is at the dinner table or in the voting booth, people love to be asked for their opinion.

From The Huffington Post