Young votes did (and will) count

The politically apathetic college student has been a stock character in political commentary for the past several election cycles. If recent trends hold true, that tired trope may no longer be an accurate description. Despite the fears, or hopes, of those who thought that fewer young adults would show up at the polls this past November, young voters played a pivotal role in the election. Conversations that once focused on how to get more youth to show up to the polls are now shifting toward how to win the votes of the increasing number of youth going to the polls.

There are 46 million Americans ages 18-29 who are eligible to vote, and if members of this demographic want to use the power of their numbers to gain political strength, they’ve got to stay engaged in the process and get more of their friends to do the same.

In the lead-up to the November election, political pundits — particularly those on the right — were eager to predict that voting rates among youth wouldn’t match up to their 2008 high. During President Barack Obama’s first presidential run, young voters energized his campaign and the Democratic Party, but enthusiasm for Obama among the 18-29 age group waned during his presidency, and expectations developed that the youth vote would begin to slide back to the 36-percent low recorded during the 2000 elections.

This was not the case. And what’s more, analysis of election results reveals just how crucial the youth vote was in determining election outcomes. According to analysis performed by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a nonpartisan research unit at Tufts University, if youth voters had stayed away from the polls, Mitt Romney likely would have won the presidency. This is because the youth vote overwhelmingly favored President Obama, with nearly 67 percent of the youth vote going to Obama and 30 percent of young votes cast for Romney.

Young voters have not always favored Democrats. While recent elections have shown a Democratic preference among younger voters, elections in the 1980s saw strong youth support for Republican candidates. Regardless, no presidential election in the past 30 years has presented such a strong Democratic preference among youth voters as this one.

This trend is evident in Travis County voting precincts where students make up a majority of the population. Precincts located in Riverside, West Campus and the Forty Acres overwhelmingly voted for Obama.  Riverside shows the strongest Democratic preference with 83.5 percent of votes having been cast for Obama, and West Campus shows the least of the three, with 58.72 percent of votes going to Obama. Of these three areas, voters living in residence halls on campus had the highest voter turnout, with 48.8 percent showing up to the polls, 68.69 percent of whom voted for Obama.

So aside from dispelling the myth of the chronically apathetic college student, November’s poll results demonstrate the rising political power of college-aged Americans. While younger voters strongly supported Democratic candidates, in many states the opposite was true of older voters. According to CIRCLE, swing states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania swung in Obama’s favor thanks largely to the under-30 vote. The group estimates that nearly 80 electoral votes swung Democratic thanks to higher than normal turnout among youths.

Despite this higher turnout, youth still voted at a significantly lower rate than Americans aged 65 or older, traditionally the demographic with the highest voting rates. Sixty-eight percent of eligible voters older than 65 years cast their ballots in the 2008 elections. So while young voters made gains in the last two elections, their influence is still not as strong as that of their grandparents’ demographic.

While much has been made of the effect that America’s shifting demographics have on election results, an increase in the percentage of youth who vote will not be driven by population gains alone.  If college-aged voters want to maintain or grow their political influence, they’ll have to stay involved.