Who Rocks the Vote?
Leslie Yingling worries that, when it comes to politics, her peers don’t worry enough, and her concern led her to examine youth voting patterns in the United States.
“It’s really important for young people to vote because when they become the over-30 population, it will be their responsibility to demonstrate to the next young generation the importance of voting and civic activity,” said Yingling, a 2005 University of Arkansas journalism and political science graduate.
Yingling was politically motivated from a young age. Her parents voted in every election – not just presidential elections, and Yingling said she remembers waiting outside of the polling place while they voted. The first of four siblings, Yingling was born and raised in a rustic home in Winslow, Ark., that was intentionally absent of preconceived notions of the middle class. Yingling and her siblings went to a small, nearby public school from kindergarten. She graduated early from Winslow High School, where she was enrolled in a senior class of 20, and immediately began attending the University of Arkansas on a Sturgis Fellowship – a $48,000 four-year award – as an entering freshman in 2001.
Yingling was one of 14 million Americans who turned 18 years old between 2000 and 2004. Despite not being able to vote, the 2000 election was compelling for Yingling.
“When the popular vote lost to the Electoral College, I wasn’t turned off of voting. I saw it as all the more valuable and necessary,” she said.
Consumed by details of the 2004 presidential race, Yingling was bothered by what she saw as the inherent lack of interest among many fellow college students. Her academic advisers encouraged Yingling’s interest in the topic of youth voting.
“We were surprised at how little research has been done on youth voting or non voting patterns,” said Louise Montgomery, associate professor of journalism and Yingling’s thesis adviser. Yingling’s analysis of youth voting trends is one of few raising important issues.
“The economy hasn’t been good. Look at the increase in the cost of education, even though the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. They should realize how much it affects them,” Yingling said. Still, youth continue to represent declining numbers in voter turnout, she said.
Yingling examined the results of reports and polls on youth voter turnout, comparing the number of youth voters since the minimum voting age was changed from 21 to 18 in 1972.
“Young people are not voting,” she said. It is difficult to know whether it is a characteristic of the person or the age group relative to maturity and interest in politics at a young age. Yingling studied U.S. Census data and found that the percentage of youth voters has decreased every year since 1972. Even though the number of youth voters increased in the 2004 election — approximately 48-52 percent of young people between the ages of 25 and 29 voted — the physical turnout did not increase the share of the youth vote since overall voter turnout increased as well.
The youth voter profile is quite different now than it was 30 years ago. Yingling reported that more youth voters identify themselves as hispanic, black and gay, lesbian or bisexual than the rest of the electorate. She also found that the number of youth voters of both genders is more equal when compared to the general electorate.
Yingling wanted to know what issues were encouraging young voters to go to the polls and whether presidential candidates were addressing the issues deemed important by young voters. Yingling’s personal highest concern in the most recent election was civil rights; however, her study shows that she was among only 11 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds who expressed the same primary concern. The polls taken just before the 2004 election reported that 35 percent of registered youth voters were most concerned with the economy and jobs; terrorism and national security was ranked most important by 22 percent; the war in Iraq by 15 percent; education by 12 percent; civil rights by 11 percent; and crime and violence by two percent.
“We’re at war, which affects young people, almost exclusively,” Yingling said. Fewer young people vote when the country is not at war than do when the country is at war. The number of voters increased across the board, but the presidential candidates did not pay any more attention to youth voter concerns than they have in the past, according to Yingling’s research.
“Wartime and a particularly scary economy happened to coincide with issues across ages” in the 2004 election, she said. The issues addressed by the candidates appear to have been in line with those viewed as important by the youth population, but considering presidential candidates’ historical disinterest in attracting youth voters, Yingling concluded that the matching of issues discussed by candidates to youth concerns was merely happenstance.
Yingling also looked at the efforts of nonpartisan Get Out The Vote (GOTV) organizations because their presence was so prevalent in the last election. GOTV organizations blame the lack of attention to the youth vote on “the chicken or the egg” complex – youth aren’t voting, so candidates don’t address them.
“In the study of democracy you want to see what works and what doesn’t work,” Yingling said.