Are young voters flaking out again?

Early voting turnout numbers suggest the youth aren't measuring up.

By Gabriel Winant
Published October 30, 2008 6:20PM (EDT)

Reports of massive early voter turnout have been so rosy for the Democrats that the election has started to feel over before November even arrives. But there's a fly in the ointment: Reports from several swing states indicate that, despite the surge in African-American turnout, there's been no similar phenomenon among young voters, who could be key to Barack Obama's chances.

In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel analyzed records of early voters and determined that while the under-35 set constitutes 25 percent of the state's electorate, it accounts for only 15 percent of early voters thus far. Likewise, Nevada's overall early turnout through Sunday was 25 percent, but stood at only 14 percent for those under 30.

George Mason University professor Michael McDonald, who has been watching early voting closely all over the country, talked to Salon about the data he's seen from North Carolina. "From the very beginning of when I was tracking this last week, the numbers [in North Carolina] have moved in the direction of more young people voting, but it's still lower than the number of young people voting in 2004," McDonald said. "I don't know where these young people are. Is their absentee ballot off in the mail? Are they waiting to show up on Election Day?"

There are two possibilities. The first is that the seemingly across-the-board increase in turnout simply doesn't apply to the youth vote, and this most Obama-philic of age groups will, as always, be underrepresented in the electorate. The second is that young voters are indeed planning to turn out, but will do it on Election Day.

Nobody knows for sure which of these is happening, but the second seems more plausible, in large part because early voting is really directed at older people. Plus, the Obama organization managed to turn out young voters in the primaries -- it's not clear why they wouldn't be able to do so now.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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