do marijuana ballot initiatives raise youth turnout?

We are cited in a couple of recent news articles about whether potential marijuana-legalization ballot measures in Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana and Nevada could encourage young people to vote in 2014 or 2016. (See Toluse Olorunnipa, “Florida Pot Vote Turnout Seen Helping Democrat Win Governor Race,” in Business Week; and Matt Sledge, “How Marijuana May Influence The 2016 Election,” in Huffington Post.)

It’s tempting to look at the data from previous marijuana initiatives in Washington State and Colorado, but the results are murky. First of all, whether youth turnout rose or fell in those states depends on whether you use the Exit Polls or the Census’ Current Population Survey to estimate it. The former method shows an increase in Colorado in 2012, but the Census doesn’t confirm that trend. In any case, many other factors were in play in those two states–other ballot initiatives and candidate races, demographic shifts, and so on. Even if the increase seen in Colorado was real, it is not clearly attributable to the pot initiative.

Leaving aside the technicalities, I think it’s important to say that marijuana legalization never polls as a high-priority issue for young voters. It’s always far down on their list, well below the economy, jobs, education, and health care. There may be some libertarian-leaning youth (and young people concerned about unfair incarceration*), for whom legalization is a core matter of principle. But they are few. There may also be some young people–as well as some older people–who would just like to be allowed to indulge. But voting is a demanding civic act that correlates with seriousness. If there is an actual stoner voting bloc, I would suspect they are low-propensity voters, quite hard to turn out on a November Tuesday. Other youth voting blocs, from environmentalists to pro-Lifers, will be easier to mobilize.

Again, I do not mean to dismiss the moral seriousness of legalization activists. Whether libertarians or critics of the carceral state (or both), they are raising a real issue, and they will vote if they have a chance. But they are not very numerous. I don’t think they are strongly concentrated among the young. And other issues will matter a lot more to the youth vote in 2014.

(*For full disclosure, I would personally vote to legalize pot and I am very concerned about over-incarceration. But less than 1 percent of state and federal inmates were incarcerated as a result of marijuana laws, so I wouldn’t put my own energy into marijuana legalization as a strategy for reducing incarceration.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.