why not to think about “youth turnout”

(Medford, MA) If we think about the “youth vote” as an aggregate, we’ll focus on a trend of decline followed by a significant rebound in 2004 (the blue line to the left). We will notice that the rate of youth voting is always low in the USA. And we will look for interventions that target young people–such as civic education, which has modest but significantly positive effects on turnout.

However, the blue trend shown above masks enormous variation. The proportion of eligible under-25s who voted was about 36% in 2000, 19% in 2002, and 46% in 2004. In 2004, 69% of eligible voters under 25 turned out in Minnesota, compared to 36% in Arkansas: almost a two-to-one ratio. (See this map.) These huge gaps should turn our attention away from “youth” (whose behavior varies depending on the circumstances) and toward elections. What made the 2004 campaign in Minnesota so much more interesting than, say, the 2002 campaign in Mississippi? Could the former have been a competitive race with high stakes?

Enhanced competition would make much more difference than civic education. It can even seem mendacious to exhort kids to vote in a civics class, if most students don’t live in places where their votes count.

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