As an election cycle approaches, political pundits often ask how a candidate can motivate young people to register to vote then vote on Election Day.
According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey, in every presidential election since 1964 on, 18- to 24-year-olds have voted at lower rates than all other age groups with few notable exceptions, including President Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008. Americans 65 and older, however, have voted at higher rates than all other age groups since the 1996 election.
“The young-adult voting gap closed somewhat from 2000 to 2008 but opened up a bit again in 2012,” said Thom File, a sociologist in the Census Bureau's Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division. “Age-based voting patterns are not set in stone. For example as recently as 1992, the nation’s oldest voters did not vote at a level higher than all other age groups.”
It is no secret voting patterns are higher for all age groups during a presidential election. But it is surprising that a 44.3 percent voting rate for young voters in 2008, during Obama’s first run for the presidency, fell to 38 percent in 2012 when he was re-elected to a second term in the White House, according to census data.
Ahmad Pryor, an 18-year-old electrical engineering student at the University of South Carolina, said young voters were energized in 2008 because they “saw someone who looks like them running for the presidency. But in 2012 most people felt (Obama) had it in the bag and their vote wouldn’t count because he was going to win regardless.”
National voting trends can serve as a local predictor of whether young people like Pryor will vote in the upcoming mayoral races in Charleston and North Charleston.
I am one of two African-American candidates who have announced in the mayor’s race in each city. In North Charleston, businessman Clifford Smith II is one of two candidates seeking to unseat Mayor Keith Summey.
Voter turnout in the Charleston mayoral election fell 2 percent in 2011 when compared with voter turnout in 2007. While there is no data available to gauge the age of voters locally, if national voting trends for youthful voters are any indication, young voters in Charleston probably didn’t vote in large numbers in 2011.
Locally, young people tend not to vote “because we are being lazy, and we don’t take issues seriously. They figure they don’t have a voice,” said North Charleston resident Kristen Burgess, 20, a junior majoring in criminal justice at USC. Burgess said she is encouraged by her friends to register to vote because one vote can make a difference.
Like Burgess, Pryor also hasn’t registered to vote, but he plans to do so before the next election. Older friends and his parents, he said, discuss with him the importance of voting. However, the best motivator is first-hand experience, he said, to determine who is the best candidate for positive change.
The fatal shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer is going to get more young people to the polls in November, Pryor predicted. They will want to discuss ways to keep citizens safer in a climate of aggressive police tactics.
Charleston resident Ciapha Dennis, a senior studying mass communications at Winthrop University, voted in the 2012 presidential election. Young voters shy away because of a lack of knowledge of how voting directly affects them, he said. The youth in general, he added, have the attitude that “whoever is in office it does not affect me.”
Local candidates, he said, can discuss the issues, but they must have the skill to translate for a young voter how an issue is relevant to their age group. They are more likely to vote when a candidate challenges their beliefs and world view.
The fact remains that local elections directly influence the day-to-day lives of all voters, both young and old. It is especially important for young voters to become involved in the civic process. November 3 is only a few months away and voters can register up to 30 days before Election Day.
For more information on voting, please visit: www.scvotes.org.