The Myth of the Young Voter

Previously, the Civitas Institute explored the myth that new voters were going to overrun polling places and dramatically shift the political landscape in North Carolina. Now we turn our attention to another electoral hypothesis – that young voters, those between 18 and 25, are going to also show up in droves and they will be the ones who create the new paradigm in electoral politics.

It seems like every four years it is trumpeted that this will be the year of the young voter. In 1992, a young, hip Arkansas governor wowed the pop culture audience and the media into declaring it the year of the youth voter? Again in 2004, Sen. John Kerry was going to fire up young voters and deliver them to the polls. Those same refrains have already been heard this year. And understandably – we’ve seen Obama pack sports stadiums and college campuses, drawing tens of thousands of young people in attendance and helping to create the perception that this massive audience is going to propel him to victory. Well, let’s take a look inside those numbers. For this exercise, we will compare the North Carolina 2004 General Election with the 2008 Primary. While not necessarily comparing apples to apples, the relative excitement and media attention given the 2008 Primary provides a fairly good proxy to 2004.

According to the NC State Board of Elections, in the 2004 General Election, voters aged 18-25 made up 11 percent of the state’s registered voters, yet on Election Day, they represented only 9 percent of actual voters. Younger voters turned out in less intensity than they are represented in overall voters by two percentage points.

As of the 2008 Primary, 18-25 year olds still (despite the intensive voter registration programs on college campuses) comprised 11 percent of registered voters. Broken out by party, 18-25 year olds represented 10 percent of registered Democrats, 10 percent of registered Republicans and 16 percent of registered Unaffiliateds.

If we look at 18-25 year olds overall, 117,930 turned out and voted in the 2008 Primary (including 5,566 that registered and voted at One Stop). But again, as a percentage of the entire electorate, 18-25 year olds represented only 6 percent of the total number of voters. They were 11 percent of the registered voters – and 6 percent of the turnout. As seen above, there is a similar five percentage point drop off between young registrants and young voter turnout. 

Age % of Reg. % Turnout
18-25 11% 6%
26-40 27% 19%
41-65 45% 52%
66+ 17% 23%

Taking a look at new registrants this year, from January 1, 2008 until the beginning of One Stop voting, 265,797 new people registered to vote. Of this group, 100,122 (or 37.7%) were between 18 and 25. That number on its own seems fairly significant – more than one-third of new registrants are young adults. However, in 2007, there were 122,425 seventeen year olds in North Carolina. Roughly 10,200 of them will turn 18 every month. Therefore, approximately 40,000 of the new young registrants in 2008 could simply be the result of the number of kids turning 18 and registering to vote as they become eligible.

New 18-25 year olds voted less frequently when compared to new registrants in older age ranges and new registrants overall. Looking at all new registrants, 115,985 of the 265,797 voted (43.6% turnout). But among newly registered 18-25 year olds, 36,742 out of the 100,122 new registrants cast a ballot (36.7% turnout). We can compare this 37 percent turnout to other age groups, whose new registrants turned out at a rate of 46 to 54 percent.

To put it another way: 37.7 percent of new registrants were 18-25, but only 32.7 percent of new voters were 18-25. Young voters voted in less intensity than their representative sample of voters overall. 

Age % of New Registrants % of New Registrant Turnout
18-25 37.7% 32.7%
26-40 26.9% 28.2%
41-65 25.8% 30.7%
66+ 5.1% 6.4%

Since 18-25 year-old new registrants were underrepresented among new voters, the other three age groups were overrepresented. The greatest intensity gains made in the 41-65 age range: this group made up 26 percent of new registrants and 31 percent of new voters.

But as we noted last week, those new voters made up a very small percentage of the overall electorate in the primary. 43,264 new 18-25 year olds voted in the 2008 primary, including one-stop registrants. Overall, 2,125,215 North Carolinians voted in the primary. New 18-25 year olds only made up approximately 2 percent of the overall electorate.

This is not intended to diminish the significant uptick in the number of younger people registering to vote. But it does show that despite the fascination with younger voters, the old political adage that “old people vote” still remains true, even in a hotly contested primary where young people were targeted to register and vote. In spite of recent increases in registration, young registered voters are still less likely to actually turn out to vote.

This article was posted in Elections & Voting by Chris Hayes on August 28, 2008 at 4:15 PM.

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