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Forum: Is 'young voter' an oxymoron?

In the most recent city elections, turnout from the youngest eligible voters was nothing short of pathetic. What can be done?

Sunday, July 22, 2001

By Christopher Briem

As the election interregnum until November begins, there is time to think about some recurring patterns in who votes in, and thus who decides, local elections.

   Christopher Briem is a Ph.D. candidate in economics and a research associate at the Center for Social and Urban Research, University of Pittsburgh. His e-mail is 

Not all residents are registered to vote and not all who are registered make it to the polls. Taken together, the voter turnout in the Pittsburgh mayor's race was just 27 percent of the population old enough to be eligible. It's not just the low turnout overall that is troubling but the almost nonexistent votes cast by the youngest eligible generation.

Young people stay away from the polls on Election Day and stay away in droves. Amid the haranguing over whether 18-year-old Josh Pollock shifted enough votes to change the results of Pittsburgh's mayoral race, it's likely that Pollock himself may have been one of only a handful of voters under the age of 20 in the city who cast a vote at all. Can this be changed?

By a count of residents, the largest voting district in Pittsburgh is District 8 of the 4th Ward. The 4,181 individuals counted by the census as being over 18 years old and living there were mostly residents of the University of Pittsburgh dorms in Oakland.

On Election Day, the voting booths in the district were the emptiest in the entire city: total votes cast = 16. The 0.4 percent turnout that represents was by far the lowest turnout recorded. That number is mitigated somewhat by the timing of Election Day. By May 15, the spring term had ended and most of the students had moved out.

A few may have voted in other areas or by absentee ballots in their home districts. Nonetheless, it will remain a hypothetical question what the election results would have been if either candidate had been successful at motivating even a small fraction of the students to come out and vote for them.

The pattern here is not much different from the rest of the country. The level of voting among members of the youngest eligible generation makes them almost a nonfactor in all elections. Nationally just one out of every six people age 18-24 typically cast ballots.

It is not only college students who fail to get to the polls. Despite fundamental changes designed to make voter registration more universal through programs like motor-voter registration, the level of civic participation remains low. Older voters do vote more, but still the 25- to 34-year-old turnout is only 28 percent and 35- to 44-year-olds clock in at just under 41 percent. Those 65-75 years old have the highest turnout at just over 64 percent nationally; thus, more than a third still do not make it to the polls. The result is that only a select few of local voters really decide who our leaders will be.

In the city, most wards registered less than a third of all adults casting votes. The residents of the 15th Ward encompassing Hazelwood should be commended for the ward with the highest turnout in the city with 37 percent of all adults casting a vote. Some individual voting districts came close to 50 percent, but that was not the norm.

It's hard to focus blame for the low turnout. It may be that the youngest generation has few of the complaints that would drive them to vote in order to try to change the status quo. Maybe the candidates did not offer much to motivate them. What is surprising is that election campaigns around Pittsburgh always seem to focus on how to "keep our young people from leaving." It sounds like the elections are all about young adults. Yet at the same time, the subjects of the rhetoric do not seem to care.

Greater participation is probably frightening to many politicians -- it represents an unknown risk. How would Generation Y vote if they made it to the polls? Getting just 1 in 3 of everyone under age 30 to vote would have increased the total votes cast by several thousand in the mayor's race alone.

Whoever would have won, we might not have had any debate over the need for a recount here. If there had been marginally greater voter participation in Florida, history might well be different.

Motor-voter registration was just one positive step toward greater political participation. Cannot voter registration be more integrated with many of the other administrative tasks we must endure? Eighteen-year-old men are automatically sent Selective Service registration forms for a nonexistent draft, yet will probably not see a voter registration form for years. Backwards?

Try ordering a new phone in your home and you will be barraged by innumerable decisions to be made for auxiliary services. Government can do the same for voting registration without being overly obtrusive. Voter registration at banks? Why not? Voter registration as part of college registration? Again, why not?

Why not make voter registration automatic with the filing of tax forms? A voter registration card could be automatically sent to everyone who files his or her state income taxes. It does not seem that unmanageable a policy.

Voter participation needs to be increased at all ages and for all groups. Men, women, married, single, black and white all have similarly low participation percentages. Yet we all should care that those younger than us are rarely voting. Eventually they will take the places of the generation older than them and will be making the decisions that need to be made.

Voter participation earlier can only make them better voters later on. If we do not start to change it soon, when will it change? We vote again on Nov. 6.

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