Image: Annual Rock The Vote Awards
Shaun Heasley  /  Getty Images file
Sen. Barack Obama speaks at the annual Rock the Vote Awards in Washington, D.C. in June 2005, when the organization celebrated 15 years of mobilizing young people to the polls.
By Elizabeth Chuck Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 11/3/2006 3:57:18 PM ET 2006-11-03T20:57:18

More young voters than ever plan on going to the polls this year, and it’s because of the war in Iraq, many say.

“Most of the people who are out there fighting are probably around the same age I am,” said Emily Tyra, 18, of Minneapolis, Minn. “Having older people make the decision to send young people out to fight for what they believe in instead of what the younger generation believes in is very frustrating.”

Tyra is not alone in wanting her opinion heard. In a Harvard poll published on Wednesday, 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they will “definitely” vote on Nov. 7. That would be the highest youth turnout for a midterm election since the national voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971.

Besides the war, the government’s response to disasters like the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina is driving young voters to the polls, experts say.

“Young people are typically more focused on national issues, and this has been a national election,” said Hans Reimer, political director of the non-partisan youth voter group Rock the Vote.

In the battleground states in this midterm election, the extra votes from young people could help make or break a candidate’s victory.

Jane Fleming, executive director of the Young Democrats of America, said that about 41 percent of young voters identify themselves as Democrats, up from many years of three-way parity among Republicans, Democrats and independents.

“This is the first time that the majority of young people are Democrats,” Fleming said of polls of 18- to 35-year-olds. “It’s a really great turnaround for us; 9/11 helped with that, and Katrina was a wakeup call.”

According to the Harvard poll, 60 percent of 18- to-24-year-olds think the country is “on the wrong track,” with 46 percent wanting all troops to be withdrawn from Iraq within a year.

More young voters across the spectrum
Youth vote organizations and politicians say they already have seen signs that young voters are taking a more-active interest in politics. And Republican organizers say that they believe the enthusiasm of the new GOP members could negate the Democratic edge.

Paul Gourley, chairman of the National College Republican Committee, said, “We’ve recruited over 45,000 new college Republicans in this election cycle. We’re about 10,000 under what we did in 2004, which is great considering it’s a nonpresidential election season.”

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Not only that, Gourley said, the passion among recruits is palpable, a nice change from the increasingly somber mood in Washington.

“When I’m in D.C., there’s a dark cloud over us,” he said. “But college Republicans are optimistic. When you’re on the ground, when you’re out there knocking on doors and at rallies, it’s a completely different feeling. In these critical races that are going to be won or lost by a few votes, the energy is high.”

Brad Patzner, 23, admitted he knew very little about the candidates, but said he was voting to support Bush administration policies, including the war in Iraq. He said a lot of his friends have been deployed to Iraq and he is considering enlisting.

“Our economy has been slipping and it needs to rise, however, I do agree with Bush’s political views,”  said Patzner of Fargo, N.D. “I just believe he has strong religious views and that’s an attribute that I really admire.”

Compared with other age groups, young adults had the largest increase in both voting and registration rates between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, with a record 47 percent of registered 18- to 24-year-olds voting in the latter, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

'Voting appears to be habit forming'
Don Green, a professor of political science at Yale University, said 2004 voting statistics are an indication of what this year will look like.

“Voting appears to be habit forming,” he said. “People who vote in a given election are likely to vote in subsequent elections.”

Young voters are also coming out more because the politicians and political parties are paying more attention to them, Green said.

“2004 will be remembered as an election in which both parties emphasized voter mobilization strategies as opposed to voter persuasion strategies,” Green said. “These campaigns reached down to the bottom of the list and contacted young people that may have otherwise been ignored. The net effect was a surprisingly high turnout among young people.”

The younger crowd’s interest in politics extends to the polling process itself.

YouthNoise, a nonpartisan, nonprofit social networking site, will be posting cell-phone video interviews in which volunteers will ask voters if they felt the polling process was legitimate and what the most important issues in the election are, said Vijay Chattha, from Veeker, the company whose mobile phone video technology will be used.

Other youth political groups say they have embraced technology as a key outreach method.

Appealing to voters online
The National College Republican Committee has groups on popular social networking sites such as Facebook.com and MySpace.com. And Rock the Vote’s Reimer said his group has teamed up with Facebook.com in the same way it has collaborated with MTV in the past. The Rock the Vote-sponsored group on the Web site has over 15,000 members and is climbing at a rate of almost 1,000 members a day, he said.

Reimer said the surest way to get people to vote is to register them.

“2004 was our first year of really pushing online voter registration,” he said. “We registered 1.2 million people just through our Web site, and it totally blew us away. We think the majority of young people still don’t know if you want to register to vote, you don’t have to go to the post office.”

Based on his studies on voter behavior, Green explains the typically lower voter turnout among young people because of their lack of experience.

“They’ve participated less often in elections and they might be more apprehensive about how and when to vote. They also tend to be a very mobile population, and registration laws make it harder for them to vote,” he said.

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