Democrats seek young voters to topple old guard


The battle for America's 44 million eligible voters aged under 30 is reaching new heights, writes Mark Hennessyin Arlington, Virginia

IN THE Obama campaign office on 14th Street in Arlington, scores of young people have been working from early morning into the early hours for the last six weeks in a bid to win the battle for the traditionally-Republican state.

"Sometimes we have got so many young people that we don't know what to do with them," said 29-year-old Gillian Burgess, one of the unpaid volunteers working full-time in the office.

A rigid discipline is in operation, as the group prepares for daily canvassing of homes and meeting up with commuters as they make their way back home from jobs in Washington DC.

"It is an exciting campaign. So many people are fired up. And it is amazing how organised it is. It is much more so than any other campaign office I have worked in," Burgess told The Irish Times.

On Tuesday, 145 volunteers showed up to help the Democrats' campaign - many of them ones who had not appeared before, encouraged to turn out as polling day edges closer and tension mounts.

The involvement of so many people in Obama's campaign is partly because of the Democratic candidate's own appeal, but also because of wider changes that have begun to emerge in the United States in recent years.

Not long ago, young people made up such a small share of those who bothered to turn out on polling day that politicians took little note of them, say political scientists.

About 44 million people aged between 18 and 29 are eligible to vote in Tuesday's election. If more than 50 per cent of them vote, it will be only the third time since the voting age dropped to 18 that this has happened since 1972.

In the 1996 presidential election, only 35.6 per cent of people under 25 voted, compared with 63.8 per cent of those aged over 30, though by 2004 the numbers of under-25s voting had jumped to 46.7 per cent.

Indeed, the numbers of under-25s who came out in 2004 were, for a time, expected to benefit the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, but as it turned out, they split evenly between him and George W Bush.

Rock the Vote, a campaigning group which encourages young people to register and vote, has signed up more than 2.3 million voters this year, compared with more than 1.4 million voters in 2004, which itself was a record year for the organisation.

The rising curve shown in 2004 and 2006 continued earlier this year when 6.5 million under-30s participated in the primaries, according to Tufts University's Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

A US federal survey carried out in 2003 among final-year high school students found that just over three-quarters of them did volunteer work in their community, up from 63 per cent in 1976.

And the young voters lean heavily towards the Democrats, voting by a 20-point margin in favour of the party in the 2006 elections for Congress and for state governorships.

In many places, young voters claim that they face barriers if they try to exercise their franchise, ranging from difficulties registering to threats that they will lose their student grants if they do not vote in their home state.

The youth vote could be especially crucial in a number of the key swing states, such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

In North Carolina alone, nearly 600,000 new voters have registered, many of them under 30.

Back in the 14th Street office, Gillian Burgess said she "wasn't sure" if she would have put in this much work for any other Democratic party candidate, but she had no hesitation doing so for the Illinois senator.

"He is a spectacular man. I have consistently been surprised by him. And I don't say this as someone who was on board from his 2004 speech to the Democratic convention.

"I was sceptical then.

"He is a really intelligent man, who knows how to ask the right people for help. And he offers hope - hope that things can change in America. That hope can carry us a long way, " she said.