Anna Quindlen: The Youth Vote Could Change History

Over the past decade American children have, from time to time, lined up at malls and on Main Street, dressed as wizards or wearing owlish spectacles, waiting to buy a book. You could see this as the power of the Harry Potter series, or as the enrichment of author J. K. Rowling. But if you take the long view, what you see are millions of inveterate readers being built from the ground up. Some version of this may well have happened during this presidential-election season. Analysts have learned to be skeptical of the so-called youth vote, but all signs suggest that this may be the moment when the country begins to create a new cadre of lifelong voters.

Evidence of this good news is both statistical and anecdotal. Turnout by young voters in the 2008 primaries and caucuses was nearly twice that of eight years before. Rock the Vote has signed up 2.3 million this year, as opposed to 1.4 million in 2004, which at the time was a watershed. On a more-micro level, the chairman of the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, who has taken students to the Inauguration every four years, told a reporter that in the past it took months to fill a single bus. This year he is chartering two, since the first one filled within days.

The last big bump among young voters came in 1972, the first presidential election after the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Despite revisionist history that suggests that all young people then were antiwar and counterculture, the youth vote split pretty evenly between George McGovern and Richard Nixon. Roughly half of those casting their first vote chose a man who was trounced on election night, and the other half chose a man who had to resign the presidency in disgrace less than two years later.

It's difficult to figure out how much effect this had on voter turnout in the decades that followed, but the undeniable fact is that Americans have exercised the franchise less vigorously than a participatory democracy might wish. There are dozens of documents in my filing cabinet about proposals to change that, from turning voting into a lottery—civic responsibility and a million bucks!—to moving Election Day to the weekend.

That particular file has grown dusty this year. Primary turnouts reached historic highs, including among new voters. The onetime collateral issues that concern them—and that were often ignored by elected officials—have gone mainstream: gay rights, the environment, the cost of a college education. And the terrorist attacks of September 11, as well as their generation's racial and ethnic diversity, reinforced their sense of themselves as engaged citizens of the world. These are the millennials, more pragmatic and optimistic than their parents.

Ben Lazarus, co-chair of Yale for Obama, says that the voters of his generation are inclined to move politics out of the long stall of baby-boomer disenchantment. "Our idea of our own American identity is much more open and progressive," he says. "And I think that goes for both sides. Most young conservatives are just as interested in recalibrating the American identity as liberals. Nobody my age has any interest in litigating the late 1960s over and over and over again."

It would be the Democratic Party that would benefit long-term if these voters participate enthusiastically. It's not simply that in some polls Barack Obama has nearly twice the support among 18- to 29-year-olds that John McCain has, that his youth and biracial identity have tapped into the more polyglot nation that has been the birthright of young Americans. It's not just that his campaign was onboard early with the new technologies the young take for granted; a week before the election, for instance, Obama had more than 2.3 million friends on Facebook, while McCain had just over 610,000.

The bottom line is that the net effect of young people's enthusiasm about Obama is likely to outstrip his candidacy. There's data suggesting that once people vote they will vote again, making it a civic habit, and that party affiliation tends to remain unchanged from a relatively early age. The young Democrats voting today will be the middle-aged Democrats voting tomorrow. As Norman Ornstein wrote more than 20 years ago, the party that secures the youth vote secures the power for the next generation.

It's fashionable in election-analysis circles to suggest that there's less to the youth vote than meets the eye, that many are registered but few show up. There are statistics to prove that, too. In 2000 only about one in three of those between the ages of 18 and 24 voted, a much lower rate than their elders.

But by 2004 the youth vote had risen by 11 percent. A group of those young people became the heroes of that election night—and a symbol of bureaucratic election snafus—at Kenyon College in Ohio. The combination of a massive campus registration drive and old-think by the Board of Elections resulted in lines in which some students stood for 10 hours, finally casting their votes at 4 a.m. (When he gave the commencement speech at the college in 2006, John Kerry joked, "I wish all Republicans had been just like you at Kenyon—informed, willing to stand up for your views and only 10 percent of the vote.") Those students wouldn't budge; they were determined to be counted. If enough of their peers do the same, it bodes well not only for the future of the Democratic Party, but also for the future of a country that had seemed to lose faith in the franchise.