Thirty-nine minutes after the last polls in the United States closed, the Associated Press ran a story out of its Washington bureau saying that the youth vote had failed to turn out: “This was not the breakout year for young voters that some had anticipated. Fewer than one in 10 voters Tuesday was 18 to 24, about the same proportion of the electorate as in 2000, exit polls indicated.”
The story was enormously influential, becoming part of the conventional wisdom in discussions of the election for weeks afterward.
But on the day after the election, Alternet Editor Eve Greenaway posted a story that reported, “Now that some of the smoke has cleared and the data has been crunched, it’s clear that 2004 was, in fact, an amazing year for young voter participation. Whereas only 42 percent of 18-29-year-olds had voted in 2000, a whopping 51 percent showed up at the polls this year, making for a 9-point increase.”
Both presidential candidates wooed young adults to assert their choices at the polls, and innumerable organizations worked to lure the young to the polls, but post-election reporting has offered only confusion on whether they actually turned out—much of that confusion sown by the notorious exit polls rather than by actual votes.
In Washoe County, those actual votes still await examination. Few places in the United States saw campaigning as vigorous as in Nevada.
In 2000, the two student-dominated precincts around the University of Nevada, Reno were precinct 404 and precinct 510. Nine hundred and fifty-seven people registered in Precinct 404, and 532 (55.6 percent) voted. In Precinct 510, 1, 211 people registered, and the voter turnout was 615 (50.8 percent).
After the 2000 census, UNR precincts were changed. Precinct 404 was divided into precinct 523 and precinct 525.
This election, 793 people registered in precinct 523, and the voter turnout was 435 (54.8 percent). In precinct 525, 1,551 people registered, and 792 finally voted (51 percent). In precinct 510, 1,591 people registered, out of whom 839 voted (52.7 percent).
While some people express dissatisfaction that the percentage of registered youth who voted hovered around 50 percent in both the 2000 and 2004 elections, others rejoice that the raw number of young voters almost doubled in the 2004 election.
In 2000, there were 1,147 total votes in precincts 404 and 510. In 2004 the total voters from precincts 523, 525 and 510 came to 2,066—nearly double the 2000 vote.
“The percentage of registered voters who voted is not irrelevant, but it’s less relevant than the percentage of students who could vote who actually voted,” said UNR political scientist Richard Siegel.
Daniel Burk, Washoe County Voters Registrar, had a different opinion.
“We have seen substantial increase in voter registration in the heavily populated student precincts since the 2000 General Election, yet the percentage turnout in these precincts for the 2004 general election were nearly unchanged from four years ago,” he said. “This information is consistent with what we have seen across the country in this year’s general election in regard to college-age student voting. It adds to the quandary of why the students—to whom so much effort was directed in regard to registering to vote and getting out the vote—had such a ‘no show’ on Election Day.”
Siegel begged to differ on this point.
“I fundamentally disagree with Daniel Burk with which part of the story is important,” he said. “The part which is important is that overall turnout doubled.
“What we do not know is what part of the actual voters [in precincts 523, 525, and 510] were actually students. But it appears that students contributed quite a bit to the dramatic change. And this reflects the efforts by the university and the 527 groups to register as many people as possible.”
Nevertheless, it’s the percentage, not the raw numbers, that determines whether the trend of turnout is up or down—or level.
UNR journalism professor Donica Mensing, who also worked at the polls this past election, saw an increase in enthusiasm about the election among students this year.
“I witnessed far greater interest and enthusiasm in the election this year by college students,” she said. “So although the percentage of registered voters in this age range who voted didn’t change between 2000 and 2004, the level of activity and the number of people who both voted and registered are up significantly.”
Yan Yang, a foreign graduate student who conducted exit polls, agreed. She believed the youth-mobilizing organizations did a commendable job.
“The reason why the percentage [of registered voters who finally voted] remained the same [in Washoe County] while the number of student voters doubled is because the number of students who registered doubled,” she said. “So that is a great success for organizations involved in student mobilization like Rock the Vote or New Voters Project.”
Yang attributed the increase in the number of student voters in Washoe County to big names like Michael Moore—and, of course, the presidential candidates—who visited Reno and targeted their efforts to mobilize the youth.
“I think Michael Moore’s tour helped,” she said. “One of his key messages was that even if you are a ‘slacker,’ you can sleep late on Election Day, drink beer and then go to the polls and vote for Kerry. I don’t know how many people did that, but his coming to Reno helped.”
Mensing, who witnessed the influx of student voters at the polls, said, “I was at the 523/525/510 precinct numbers several times on Election Day this year, volunteering for the Democratic Party. The line to vote went out the door and down the sidewalk for much of the day.
“Initially, there was confusion over whether precinct workers would accept student identification, since the student IDs didn’t have the student’s physical address,” she said. “Despite assuring some of the workers earlier that student IDs were acceptable, on Election Day there were a number of disputes about ID. As I understand it, some students were asked to fill out provisional ballots, and others walked away in disgust. I didn’t talk to them, so I don’t know if it was the line or hassles with the ID that drove them away.”
The identification card snarl came to the attention of former Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa. She went to Burk’s office for help, and soon the poll workers started accepting the cards. She said Burk had anticipated the problem, but poll workers apparently did not understand his instructions.
“He [Burk] issued some pretty explicit directions, but there was apparently some miscommunication somewhere. But it got straightened out.”
It’s an open question whether the people who left ever returned to vote later in the day. Anyhow, for some like Andrew Johnson, a sophomore at Truckee Meadows Community College, the turnout could have been better. Johnson, who knows people who didn’t vote, felt there was no worthy candidate.
“I think a lot of the problem was that the candidates were horrible on both sides,” he said. “There wasn’t really a strong candidate to look forward to.”
According to Johnson, there are people who are using the excuse, “I wasn’t educated on the issues, so I didn’t vote.” He has heard of at least five people among his classmates and acquaintances who chose not to vote.
That raises a couple questions. First, if all the efforts of the candidates and other celebrities could not stimulate a certain segment of the population to vote in what was labeled as “the most important election in the history of the United States,” what can be done in the future to get these people to go to the polls? Second, if students, who typically favor the Democratic candidate, voted in unprecedented numbers in this election, how is it that John Kerry didn’t get elected?
Of course, the final outcome of the election isn’t the issue; student voter turnout is.
Siegel says, “We have evidence that student voting was up by nearly 100 percent. The numbers indicate that turnout doubled. This suggests that student turnout quite possibly doubled. And that is the dramatic story.”
The youth vote is still the subject of an array of conflicting claims. According to Rock the Vote, a campaign mobilizing young people, the nationwide percentage of registered young people who voted was 42.3 in 2000 and 51.6 in 2004.
But aside from RTV’s own stake in positive numbers, voting experts consider percentage of registered voters a dubious benchmark. They say the percentage of eligible or voting-age citizens is what counts. They also say all claims about this year’s youth vote are premature, and there are in-depth studies underway to answer questions about it which will be more reliable than the quickie studies done by journalists or interest groups. However, those studies won’t be completed for a year or so.