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Youth Voter Participation Surges - But So Do Voter Suppression Attempts

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Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

Young voters have arrived.

Finally.

Since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972, predictions of the increasing impact of young voters on the outcomes of elections have consistently been proven wrong on Election Day. In fact, youth voting rates have rarely been as strong as they were in 1972 and young people continue to be among the least represented groups in the electorate and in the voting booth.

Until now.

The 2008 primary season, remarkable for so many reasons, has seen a veritable firestorm of interest from young people that has driven their civic participation rates to record-setting levels. Super Tuesday alone yielded 3 million votes from voters younger than 30 while voter registration rates have increased exponentially across the country. As states with upcoming primaries brace themselves for the influx of voter registration applications  - and even the possibility of youth "swinging" Pennsylvania's election next week -  presidential candidates and youth voting advocates have taken a more "hands on" approach in engaging young voters in the political process. However, as we've seen when other historically underrepresented groups dramatically increase their participation, partisan agendas centered on excluding people from the electorate bring forth rules and regulations - often couched in terms of "ballot integrity" or "combating voter fraud" - that restrict access to the ballot.

"Candidates are tapping into the so-called millennium generation, the children of baby boomers who grew up demanding much from their elders and keenly interested in the world around them," wrote Barbara Barrett of Pennsylvania's Centre Daily Times Monday. "Everyone is sick and tired of the way things are going, and they want change," a Penn. State voter told Barrett. "Now is a good year for young people."

Presidential campaigns and groups like Rock the Vote have been reaching young voters through Internet networking and texting, an effective way of reaching highly mobile young people, according to a 2007 study by the Student PIRGS.  The report found text message reminders to vote increased likelihood to turnout by 4.2 percentage points.

"Now reaching the masses, particularly the younger masses, means putting the power in their hands," the Associated Press reported Monday. All candidates have visited college campuses as part of their youth outreach campaigns. But both Barrett and the Associated Press point to presidential hopeful Barack Obama - who recently rallied 20,000 "shrieking, sign-waving" Penn State students and promised a game of basketball with high school and college students who helped register Indiana voters  - as one of the biggest reasons for the revival of the youth electorate.

"[Obama] has drawn a lot of momentum from the buzz generated by young people, whose cultural upbringing has been in a highly fragmented media world of online social networking,"AP reported. Future Majority's Michael Connery also commented yesterday on the difference in Obama's campaign: "It's not just technology and it's not just star power. It's a real commitment to field organizing, and making sure that young people are targeting their fellow youth. In other words, it's all about the peer-to-peer organizing."

Engaging voters in the political process and allowing them to take part in campaigns, voter registration drives, and even media coverage, helps foster a healthy democracy and balances the electorate. In midterm election year 2006, just half of eligible voters younger than 30 were registered to vote. The disparity was even greater among young voters of color. While 54% of white youth were registered, just 46% of Black and 43% of Latinos were registered. In 2008, however, young Latinos are "shaping up to be this election's 'soccer moms,' a decisive group of swing voters," the San Francisco Chronicle reported yesterday.

In an effort to reach the millions of young Latino voters, non-profit group, Voto Latino and SiTV, a cable and Internet company created "Crash the Parties '08" to politically engage young, English-speaking Latinos by "crashing" Republican and Democratic conventions this summer.  

The groups are recruiting young, Latino reporters to "produce newscasts, video blogs and interviews with candidates and convention delegates for a growing audience of hip, bicultural Latinos who may not be all that plugged in yet to the political process."

"The health of a democracy depends on active, informed voters," opined Oberlin College president, Marvin Krislov, in the Washington Post Saturday. "Numerous studies have shown that young people who vote are likely to become lifelong voters. So a young person's first experience of voting should be welcoming, not frustrating."

The frustrating experiences Krislov refers to are Election Day barriers, including restrictive proof-of-residency requirements that hurt students, a highly mobile population that is more prone to rejection from voter rolls and ballot access because of constantly changing residences. Oberlin recently helped its students overcome that barrier by providing utility bills in order to prove residency for on-campus residents who couldn't vote before, a measure Krislov encourages other states to emulate.

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