TOPICS > Politics

Youth Voters Take Active Role, but Turnout Is Uncertain

October 30, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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While record numbers of young and first-time voters are engaged in the political process this year, questions remain as to how strong their turnout will be at the polls. Kwame Holman reports on the youth vote in Virginia and how it reflects national trends.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Barack Obama continues to lead in the polls in the battleground state of Virginia and has said, if he wins it, he’ll win the presidency.

On Tuesday, his ninth campaign trip to the state, took him to the campus of James Madison University in Virginia’s conservative central region. He talked about being inspired by young voters.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: In this campaign, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing what’s best in America. I’ve seen it in lines of voters that stretched around schools and churches. I’ve seen it in all the young people who’ve cast a vote for the first time. And those…

KWAME HOLMAN: Young people seem to be plentiful at every Obama rally. We talked to some before Obama spoke in Leesburg, Virginia, last week. Lauren Masterson is 24.

LAUREN MASTERSON: We see ourselves in him, I think. Even though he is of another generation, people are excited about him because he seems to understand young people.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brianna Davenport is 18.

BRIANNA DAVENPORT: So I think that Barack, you know, like his plans and his goals, I actually think that they will make a difference.

KWAME HOLMAN: And 23-year-old Evan Loudenback talked about the Iraq war and Obama.

EVAN LOUDENBACK: … that he’s always opposed the war, where McCain’s, you know, he’s — pardon me — McCain has gone with the war, voted with it. So that definitely strikes a chord.

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), Alaska: It’s good to be here with you today, Virginia. Thank you.

KWAME HOLMAN: When Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin came to central Virginia on Monday, young supporters, such as 20-year-old Trevor Muhler, talked excitedly about John McCain.

TREVOR MUHLER: More people I know are voting than I’ve known before. Most of my friends now are 18, 20, 22, and they’re actually all going out to vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: Cara Snodgrass is 23.

CARA SNODGRASS: But, unfortunately, too many people in the younger generation like young, and enthusiastic, and playing basketball. They won’t take the time to sit down and look at the issues.

And, unfortunately, I think the — my wayward friends tend to see Obama as this great change, and he talks about change, but he has yet to tell me or anyone else in my circle of friends what that change is going to dictate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Twenty-year-old Katie Swartz also sounds energized by McCain and Palin.

KATIE SWARTZ: I’m a huge, huge person for pro-life. I’ve always believed in it, and I really like their stand on that.

Obstacles to the voting booth

KWAME HOLMAN: Like the rest of the electorate, young people here in Virginia and nationwide are showing record levels of interest in this presidential race. But any candidate who counts on the votes of young adults faces both opportunity and obstacles.

In the last two presidential elections, less than half of eligible adults under 30 voted; that's a 20-point lower participation rate than those over 30.

GRANT HERRING, George Mason College Democrats: You can vote in person, absentee, Monday through Saturday. You can go and vote in person, and they'll be able to help you out without -- even without your voter registration card.

KWAME HOLMAN: Grant Herring knows it's hard to raise turnout among young voters. He's the leader of campus Young Democrats at George Mason University in Northern Virginia.

For weeks, the group has tried to help students navigate the often confusing maze of registration, early voting, and where to go on Election Day. Some are among the well over 200,000 new 18- to 29-year-olds who have registered in Virginia just this year.

GRANT HERRING: Get in the mail tonight, because I know you're a Virginia Beach voter, so...

POTENTIAL VOTER: But I've been going back and forth between the two...

KWAME HOLMAN: The young Democrats have contacted many hundreds of potential voters.

POTENTIAL VOTER: I've got to get to class.

GRANT HERRING: All right, have a good day.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Herring wouldn't predict how many will make it to the campus polling place next Tuesday.

GRANT HERRING: I don't want to give you an exact number and have you come back and talk to me on election night and say, "Where are all the voters?"

MICHAEL MCDONALD, George Mason University: It's very difficult to expand the electorate. It's very difficult to go out and get people who are not normally engaged in the political process to register and then vote on Election Day.

KWAME HOLMAN: George Mason political science Professor Michael McDonald says, despite a sharp increase in political activity on campus -- most of it for Obama -- getting young people, especially first-timers, to vote is fraught with difficulty.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: We look at the hurdles that are in place for somebody who's never voted before, and they're many. One of them is registration. The other hurdle they have to jump over is the actual process of voting.

And particularly for young people who are at a college, they may have to cast an absentee ballot. They're going to have to go through the whole procedure of requesting that absentee ballot and then returning it. That can be very difficult for some people who've never been through the whole process.

Turning out the youth vote

KWAME HOLMAN: This is one of 50 offices the Obama campaign has opened in battleground Virginia, compared to 20 for John McCain. The well-financed operation includes an Internet component relied on by the campaign.

BRENT COLBURN, Spokesman, Obama for America: This is not only a place for people to share ideas, but it becomes an organizing tool.

KWAME HOLMAN: Such advantages have helped Obama build a 20-percentage-point polling lead over McCain among 18- to 29-year-olds in Virginia and nationwide.

Spokesman Brent Colburn says the campaign has gained experience at guiding new voters of any age.

BRENT COLBURN: It's been a long primary season for the Democrats leading up to this general election, and one of the things that that afforded us was a chance to look at how we did do with newer voters, how we did do with students.

And we've been through this process of registering and mobilizing before, and what we've seen is that this energy really does translate into votes.

JOSH ST. LOUIS, George Mason College Republicans: The main audience for this blog is undecideds, people who are not sure, or basically even shoring up the base...

KWAME HOLMAN: Back on the campus at George Mason University, Josh St. Louis, head of the College Republicans, said his group is less interested in bringing in new young voters.

JOSH ST. LOUIS: We made the decision not to register people, because, frankly, we thought our resources and our manpower would be better utilized elsewhere, mainly off-campus.

And it's true. It's very impressive they are registering. I'm still a little -- a little skeptical to see if they will turnout.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Republican Party in Virginia typically maintains high levels of registration throughout the year. And the party has a longstanding reputation for successfully turning them out on Election Day.

Still, St. Louis admits Obama's lead in the polls may keep some young Republicans away.

JOSH ST. LOUIS: I know a few people personally who aren't voting this year, because they feel it's such an uphill battle. I'm working every day to try to convince them otherwise.

KWAME HOLMAN: The McCain campaign's national headquarters is located in Virginia, and here the outlook is more upbeat. Like the Democrats, the campaign is banking on the Internet to reach young voters.

And Mike Ginsberg of the Young Republican Federation says Web-based efforts finally may yield rewards this year.

Youth get involved in other ways

MIKE GINSBERG, Young Republican Federation of Virginia: In the past, it has been perhaps more hype than actually pans out on Election Day, but with the new technology and the new ways of communicating, that may change this year. It's hard to say.

But certainly we are doing what we can to make sure that we use those new technologies to get folks, make sure they get to the polls, make sure that they're active and that they not only get engaged, but that they stay engaged throughout the process and ultimately show up on Election Day.

KWAME HOLMAN: But perhaps even more than their votes, the greatest value of young adults to both presidential campaigns may be their sweat.

MIKE GINSBERG: I think they're important for campaigning purposes, going door-to-door, trying to get support. I think it's important that everyone should vote, so that's how young people are important.

But as for the overall turnout, historically, things don't tend to change overnight.

JOSH ST. LOUIS: They're very important because they obviously can provide a lot of foot soldiers. They can sometimes work during the day between classes when some of us are at work doing, you know, our regular jobs.

So, absolutely, I mean, they're very important. And the campaign is doing a very serious effort to try to bring them in, make them part of the campaign.

VOLUNTEER: Virginia is a big swing state, and this is the first time in over 40 years where Virginia actually has a chance of going blue.

Yes, rain or shine every day, as long as there's no hurricane.

KWAME HOLMAN: The national group Rock the Vote says it expects young voter turnout to rise this year as it has the last two presidential cycles, but still hover around 50 percent.