Yesterday the Census Bureau released a demographic report on the 2012 election that’s chock full of really interesting stuff.
The Bureau’s analysis of racial data has gotten the most attention, and not unreasonably. The report’s dramatic finding that black voter turnout levels rose above white levels for the first time in American history is just the beginning of that story. (I myself was even more intrigued to learn that black turnout rose almost as much between 2008 and 2012 as it did between 2004 and 2008. There’s a huge amount to unpack in just that one statistic.)
Beyond the racial demographics, however, there’s a lot more of interest lurking in the numbers — much of it unmentioned in the formal report and only discoverable in the accompanying tables. Here are some of the nuggets I found most compelling:
Perhaps the most dramatic age-related data had to do with educational attainment. Among all young citizens (defined as those under 25 years old), some 41% said they’d voted. (It’s important to note that this is an undercount, because not everyone was asked this question or answered it. Unlike with the racial date noted above, the Census did not use statistical analysis to correct for non-responses.) Among those without a high school diploma, that number dropped below 25%. High school graduates with no college weren’t much more likely, at 29%, but those who had attended college without getting a bachelor’s degree (or who were still enrolled as undergrads) voted at a rate of 50% and among those with a bachelor’s voting jumped to 63%.
When you compare these figures with those for the population as a whole, they become even more stark. Young people with a bachelor’s degree were 84% as likely to say they’d voted as all ages with bachelor’s, and those with some college were 78% as likely to say so as the full population in that educational cohort. But comparing high school grads across the age demographics, young people were only 55% as likely to have voted as all those with high school but no college.
When non-voters were asked why they didn’t vote, some reasons — they forgot, they weren’t interested, they were too busy, bad weather — turned up in essentially equal numbers among young non-voters and the non-voting electorate as a whole. One answer, “illness or disability,” was unsurprisingly far less common among the young. (Young non-voters gave that reason 3.1% of the time, compared to 14% for all non-voters and a full 42% among non-voters over 65.) Young people were also, perhaps more surprisingly, less likely to say they didn’t like the candidates (by a ratio of 9.9% to 12.7%) or that they weren’t interested (14.0% to 15.7%).
So why didn’t young people vote? Nearly 15% said they were out of town, double the percentage of older voters who said the same. And another 9.4% said they had difficulty registering, as compared to 5.5% of the total non-voting pool. Each of these difficulties reflects the barriers to registration posed by Voter ID laws, impediments to voting on campus, and similar suppression efforts that have in many states been targeted specifically at youth voters. Young non-voters were more likely to cite registration problems than any racial or ethnic group, region of the country, or income level. The only demographic group more likely to cite being away from their home polling site as the reason for missing out was those with income over $150,000 a year.
Add this all up, and you get a really clear picture. Young people who go to college vote. Young people who don’t go to college mostly don’t. And when young people who do go to college don’t vote, it’s often because someone put up barriers to them doing so.
So if you want to increase youth voter turnout, stopping Voter ID laws and encouraging on-campus voting is a really important first step. But it’s only the first step, and it’s only going to get you a small part of the way to parity.
If you want to increase youth voting more than at the margins, you need to reach young people who never make it to college. And that’s a group that’s not getting anywhere near the kind of attention it should.