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U.C. Berkeley leads college turnout amid record youth vote

7 November 2008 No Comment

By Will Jason

New estimates released Nov 7 show the Presidential election may have set a 36-year record for the rate of youth voter turnout. And the University of California, Berkeley appears to be one of the top contributors to that record among the nation’s college campuses, according to registration statistics and interviews.

Up to 53 percent of eligible young voters—ages 18 to 29—took part in the Nov 4 election, according to estimates from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). They favored the winner, Barack Obama, by more than 2-1 (click here for Politico‘s analysis of Obama’s “youth mandate”).

U.C. Berkeley students wait to vote Nov. 4 at an on-campus polling place

U.C. Berkeley students wait to vote Nov. 4 at an on-campus polling place

This year’s turnout is up five points from 2004, and up 12 points from 2000. It is the highest youth turnout since 1972, the first election after the voting age was lowered to 18.

In interviews following the election, U.C. Berkeley students said they were energized by the candidacy of Obama, and mobilized to vote in part by online social networks such as Facebook.

“When it turned to election day, everyone’s [Facebook] status turned to say, ‘go out and vote for Barack Obama,’” said sophomore Bailey Pennick, 19.

Facebook users can set a customized “status” message that tells friends what they are doing. Using a special feature, about 1.2 million users set their status to support Obama, and more than 370,000 did so to support his opponent, John McCain.

At U.C. Berkeley, the election followed the registration of more than 12,000 new students voters, according to Why Tuesday, a non-partisan group that led a national registration drive of more than a half-million students. That is the highest of any campus participating in the drive, which registered more than a half-million total students.

Senior Stephanie Chan, 21, said she “never paid attention to anything, really, in politics,” until she first learned about Obama in 2006. A friend lent her a copy of Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, and she soon became an organizer for the group Students for Barack Obama.

“After reading the first chapter it just seems like he’s a really great guy,” Chan said of Obama. “I love his background in community organizing.”

For young voters in particular, a candidate’s persona is often more important than specific proposals, according to Jack Citrin, a political scientist who studies turnout and the director of U.C. Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies

“The youth vote is not an issue vote but a personal vote,” Citrin said.

The last election with a comparable surge in youth voting was 1992, when 52 percent of young people voted and President Bill Clinton was elected to his first term.

Like Obama, 47, Clinton was relatively young – 46 – when he was elected. But a candidate’s age itself doesn’t explain a surge in youth support, according to Citrin. In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the oldest elected president while winning the youth vote by a large margin, he noted.

“It’s not so much really a matter of their youth as their image and the context in which they ran that helped to mobilize young voters,” Citrin said of candidates with youth support.

Despite the estimated 23 million young voters who voted Nov 4, youth turnout was still several points below the country as a whole, which surged above 60 percent.

U.C. Berkeley junior Wes Bruns, 21, said he was among those who didn’t vote.

“I just don’t feel an election right now has a huge impact on me,” said Bruns, who said he thought about voting but didn’t request an absentee ballot from Southern California in time.

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