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Thursday, November 4, 2010

About that college turnout ...

Posted By on Thu, Nov 4, 2010 at 1:56 PM

One of the reasons Democrats got pummeled this week is that their GOTV efforts -- which relied heavily on reaching out to voters excited by Barack Obama -- simply didn't pan out.

It wasn't for lack of trying, either. Take college voters. PennPIRG, a public-interest group that engaged in voter-outreach efforts on campuses nationwide, went to considerable lengths to get students excited. As a press release this week asserted:

Over the past several weeks, student leaders at University of Pittsburgh organized dorm storms, mass Facebook "status updates," intensive phone-banks and even text message blasts to urge their peers to the polls. Expert analysis finds that such efforts, in which one young person urges another to the polls, are the most effective at boosting turnout.

In the weeks leading up to the election, student leaders with PennPIRG’s New Voters Project made more than 4500 get out the vote contacts with young voters on campus, a major reason for a strong showing at the polls from area students.

Last Thursday, for example, PennPIRG leaders asked students on their way to class to sign a "Why I'm Voting Banner," and "Pledge to Vote" cards. At their urging, dozens of students sent hundreds of text message reminders to vote to their friends.

What were the results? PennPIRG judged its effort by comparing voter turnout in three student-heavy precincts -- districts 7, 8, and 14 of Ward 4. That's a larger sample than I looked at on Election Night, but those are good bellwethers for student voting. And what do they show? The number of ballots cast increased from 1,498 in 2006 to 1,607 this year.

Now on the one hand, that's a 7 percent increase ... which isn't bad considering that voter turnout for Allegheny County as a whole shrunk by nearly 8 percent in the same time frame. On the other hand ... we're talking about 109 votes here. To put that in perspective, the increase in student turnout was swamped by the number of write-in votes (179) cast in the 14th Congressional District race -- a race that already had not one but two protest candidates.

But don't pin their failure on lazy Pitt students, or ineffective work by the groups working with them. Diminsihed interest among young voters was endemic to election battles all across the country:

In 2008, 18-to-29-year-olds made up 18% and those 65-plus made up 16%. Young people actually outvoted old people. This year, the young cohort was down to 11%, and the seniors were up to a whopping 23% of the electorate. That's a 24-point flip.

In fact, students in Oakland actually did a decent job of turning out, by some measurements. While saying turnout was "in the typical range for a midterm election," the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that outside the Pitt campus, turnout was generally lower than in 2006

An estimated 20.4 percent of young Americans under the age of 30 voted in Tuesday’s midterm elections, compared to 23.5 percent in the last midterm election (2006) ...  Almost nine million Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 voted. Almost 10 million people in the same age group voted in 2006.

So when you measure against 2006, turnout among local students looks pretty good. But again ... the whole point of Democratic efforts was to build on the support from 2008. And using that scorecard, the GOTV effort seems to have fallen well short. In 2008, nearly 4,600 votes were cast in the three precincts PennPIRG tracked. Turnout this year was only 35 percent of that.

I'm on record as having doubts about the merits of that strategy. I suspect Democrats frittered away much of that early support -- and that new-found base -- by equivocal positions on issues like Don't Ask/Don't Tell. A pro-LGBT-rights position resonates well with younger voters, who typically skew more socially tolerant. And it may not be a coincidence that Joe Sestak -- who took a principled position on DADT, and who was one of the most liberal Democratic candidates on the ballot anywhere in the United States -- came as close as he did Tuesday night. 

But before we blame Democrats for depressing turnout, there is at least some anecdotal evidence that more nefarious forces may have been at work as well.   

The Pitt News has reported complaints that as many as 100 students were turned away at the polls. That may partly be a result of confusion on the students' part, or a failure to hand out provisional ballots in some cases, but there's also this worrying disclosure:

[Pitt first-year student Heidi] Patel told elections workers that she received a knock on her door in her campus dormitory sometime between the last week of September and the first week of October. Two people asked her if she was registered to vote. Patel said she told them she was not and filled out a voter registration card and gave it back to them.

"I was really excited to vote," Patel said, "I just turned 18."

Patel said she never received a voter registration card.

[Election judge Blithe] Runsdorf said people repeated stories like Patel’s all day.

Could Pitt students have been the victim of some sort of voter-registration scam? It's possible. You may recall that in 2004, there was a spate of complaints that local college students had their party affiliation -- and their address -- changed without their knowledge. Then again, maybe some students just got confused, or were making excuses. 

Stay tuned.

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