Young voter turnout goes through roof

Youth are not waiting for the general elections to let officials know they are a force to be reckoned with, turning out to vote in primary elections by the masses.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the youth vote nearly tripled in both Iowa and South Carolina primaries, and increased by 25 percent in New Hampshire when compared to primaries in 2004.

On Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, youth voter turn out increased in almost every state, again tripling in many. And despite a crippling storm that killed several people in the state of Tennessee, the youth vote nearly quadrupled!

An overwhelming majority of the youth vote went to Sen. Barack Obama who won the youth vote in all Super Tuesday states but Arkansas, California and Massachusetts. Even in those states, Obama kept the margin of victory incredibly low. In the Potomac Primaries (DC, Maryland and Virginia), Obama swept all states.

The developments of the 2008 primaries continue a trend of steadily increasing youth voter turn out that began in 2000. But the sharp increases of 2008 have begged the question, why are so many young people high-stepping it (figuratively and literally) to the polls?

Some groups argue that the increased turn out was motivated by the dynamic pool of Democratic presidential candidates, inspired by their stances against the war and for education, and the possibility of the first Black or female Democratic nominee.

“One of the great things about this election is that it’s been able to captivate young people,” said Diego Iniguez-Lopez, a third year student at the University of Maryland. “These elections will have a huge impact on many of our abilities to stay in college.”

Iniguez-Lopez’s comments come on the tails of a Congressional debate about increasing the Pell Grant, a federal grant given each year to over 5 million students with family incomes of $40,000 or less. Some are worried that the increase, expected to rise up to $4,600 per year, may be too little too late, and may be funded in lieu of other federal aid programs instead of in conjunction with them.

Last year, Pell Grants only covered on average one third of the cost of a 4-year public university. Many students hope they can elect a president that will re-prioritize funding away from the war in Iraq and back to financing federal aid programs to make college more accessible to youth that want to go.

Other groups add that it is also a product of increased voter mobilization efforts, such as those spearheaded by youth voter groups that were formed during this period.

Billy Wimsatt, director of the League of Young Voters, noted, “The youth vote didn’t just come out of nowhere. Organizations like ours have been building up the youth vote election cycle after election cycle to help build the confidence of young people to participate.”

One thing almost everyone can agree on is that the high turn out represents youth disapproval of the Bush Administration and the backwards plans the extreme right wing has for the future of education, jobs and health care.

With the continued right-wing erosion of workers’ rights to form and join unions, young workers remain the least likely to be in a union. Young people often get stuck in temporary, dead-end employment that requires them to take on multiple jobs in order to support their families and/or their education—leaving little time for civic participation.

Even those that are able to get a union job have reason to be concerned. The United Auto Workers (UAW) were forced into an agreement with General Motors that accepted a 2-tier wage contract where newer hires, typically young workers, would earn half the wages of current employees and receive a lesser benefits package.

Though fed up, youth are still hopeful.

“I think youth voter turn out will continue to grow,” said Shayne Koplowitz, a first year student at Central Connecticut State University—a state where Obama won with 58 percent of the youth vote. “People are getting their friends to turn out because they realize how screwed up things are getting, and we are the ones that would have to pay with our futures. The key for us will be to maintain our engagement after the elections in order to continue holding public officials accountable to our needs.”

Erica Smiley (smiley @yclusa.org) is the coordinator of the Young Communist League USA.