WASHINGTON – A study released Tuesday found political participation by young Americans has increased just in time for next month's midterm elections.
According to a report by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement,72 percent of young Americans said they follow governmental and public affairs at least occasionally. The number of 20- to 25-year-olds who say they “always vote” has increased since the last survey in 2002.
In addition,the number of young adults reporting participation in “get-out-the-vote” activities matches those of adults,said Heather Smith,director for the nonprofit organization Young Voter Strategies.
“This data paints a clear picture for me of a generation that is paying attention,that is increasingly engaged politically … and promises great payoffs if they are in turn paid attention to,” Smith said. “It also paints a clear opportunity,I believe,for partisan and political campaigns in the next five weeks to reach out and engage 18- to 25-year-olds.”
The youth voter turnout rate in the 2004 presidential election showed the largest increase since 18-year-olds won the right to vote in 1971. It rose 11 percentage points from 2000,when 36 percent of those ages 18 to 25 voted,Smith said.
The survey also found that the gap between youths leaning Democratic and those leaning Republican has widened. In 2002,46 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds identified as Democrats or leaning Democrat,and 31 percent leaned Republican. In 2006,the same percentage reported identifying as Democrats,but only 28 percent said they identified as Republicans.
While the majority of Americans said they believe the government should do more to solve problems,the study reported a 20-point increase in youths who say the “government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.”
Habits and attitudes formed in youth will likely continue unaltered even as people age and will influence voting,said William Galston,the group's senior adviser.
“They are like an indelible dye,” Galston said. “What they believe about society,what they believe about the role of government – if you have a stance,you're likely to take that with you for the next 40 years.”
The report also shows promise for future increases in youth involvement,Peter Levine,the center's director,said.
“Today we are moving past the simplistic story of decline and doom and gloom that tends to dominate discussions of civic engagement,” Levine said. “The statistics show that this is not a slacker generation. … There is a lot of civic engagement going on.”
Black and Asian American youth showed the most political participation,while Latin Americans showed the least.
Although Latin Americans reported less frequent voter activity,that may be because many aren't citizens,the center's research director,Mark Lopez,said.
The number of young people who said they participated in a protest rose form 8 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2006. Much of the increase was driven by Latinos – a quarter of Latino youths said they had participated in a protest,Lopez said. That's more than double the percentage of any other ethnic or racial group.
The report also examined the attitudes of the youth demographic. Despite showing more tolerance toward gays and immigrants than do adults older than 26,young people have become less accepting of both groups since 2002.
For the survey,Princeton Survey Research International interviewed 2,232 people ages 15 and older. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points for the entire sample and 2.5 percentage points for the 1,658 respondents ages 15 to 25.
An early 2004 election report by the Associated Press,which included inaccurate low youth turnout numbers,hurt young voters' trust in their ability to affect election outcomes,Galston said.
“Some of the resentment has to do with the press in the first 24 hours uniformly denigrating the youth vote,” he said. “Young people have to see reflected back to them what actually happens,not some pre-judgment of what they're going to do.”
Participation in civic life is good for young people and the community because it improves academic performance,cuts teen pregnancy rates and “reduces their chance of getting into serious trouble,” Levine said.
Cultivating the youth vote will mean an enriched democracy for everyone,Smith said. Her group plans to spend a $3 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to register 350,000 new voters using the Internet,e-mail and mobile phones.
“If we can engage these citizens at a young age,we'll have repeat voters,a more engaged electorate and a stronger democracy in the U.S.,” she said.