The Half-Impressive Youth Vote

Half of young people are nonvoters, an embarrassing fact for one of the only true democracies in the world.

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Supporters hold up a sign as they wait for first lady Michelle Obama to speak during a campaign rally at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Nov. 3, 2012.

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Peter Levine is Lincoln Filene professor of citizenship & public affairs and director of CIRCLE: the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service

Most people expected youth turnout to decline this election cycle compared to 2008, when under-30 year olds voted in force for Barack Obama. Signs of diminished enthusiasm were hard to miss. For instance, the Center for Information on Research on Civic Learning and Engagement asked a random sample of young Americans prior to the election whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney was a "typical politician." The largest group, 36 percent, said "both." Another 19 percent chose President Obama alone. That means that an outright majority of young people saw the president as a typical politician, not as an inspirational leader. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center recently reported that just 28 percent of young people were following this fall's election closely, down from 40 percent at the same point four years ago.

To my surprise as much as anyone's, young people turned out at almost exactly the same rate this year as they had in 2008. Half of all eligible citizens under 30, or at least 22 million young Americans, voted. They preferred Barack Obama by a lopsided 23-point margin and were numerous enough to determine the outcome of the campaign. If former Gov. Mitt Romney had drawn half of the youth vote in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, he would have won their 80 electoral votes and would now be planning his administration. Instead, he was swamped by young Obama voters, and his career is over.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Since young people voted at the same rate in 2012 despite showing less enthusiasm than four years ago, I think we can conclude that they weren't moved by excitement or hope as much as by commitment and persistence. This was actually the third presidential election in a row in which the youth turnout rate has been around 50 percent, far above the nadir of 37 percent in 1996. It looks as if young voters are back, and their generation is big enough that they can now choose presidents. They will participate whether they love one of the candidates (as in 2008) or just feel that important issues are at stake.

The Center for Information on Research on Civic Learning and Engagement's perspective is nonpartisan. We want young people of all backgrounds and ideologies to participate in civic life, by voting and but also by serving in their communities, following the news, discussing issues, and informing themselves. Civic participation is a habit formed during youth, so the future of our democracy depends on engaging young people today.

From that perspective, the increase in youth turnout is heartening, and it's good news that young people have amassed political power by voting—that means that the parties, interest groups, and the news media will compete to engage, persuade, and educate young people.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Get Rid of the Electoral College?]

But 50 percent turnout is still not impressive. The United States routinely posts the lowest voter turnout rates of any true democracy in the world, and young Americans lag 15 points or more behind older Americans in voting.

Today's young generation faces many stereotypes, from coddled slackers to technological whiz-kids. The truth is: They are diverse to an unprecedented degree, not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but also in their experiences and opportunities. Record numbers are completing college and going on to graduate school, yet about 40 percent do not take even one course beyond high school.

That latter group dominates the nonvoters. Whereas young people with some college experience voted at a rate of about 63 percent this November, the turnout of non-college-educated young people was just 36 percent. Those nonvoters were diverse ideologically and included a substantial proportion who liked Mitt Romney better than Barack Obama. But they failed to vote for any candidate.