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Why young people don't vote -- or do they?

While many college students lived and breathed the U.S. presidential election this fall, 25 political science majors at Indiana University had a unique perspective on the contest and their peers' engagement in the campaign.

They have spent the fall semester learning about theories of voter turnout and social-science research tools -- and applying them to the 2008 election -- for a senior seminar called "Why Young People Don't Vote."

Regina Smyth, associate professor of political science, designed the class when she was on the faculty at Penn State University, and she decided this would be a good year to teach it at IU.

Voter Statistics

Stephanie Scharf, a student in the IU Bloomington political science course "Why Young People Don't Vote," reports to classmates on data from a survey of student voting behavior.

Print-Quality Photo

"It looked like it was going to be a different kind of year -- a good year to think about youth turnout," she said.

Students in the class applied themselves to an issue that has long vexed political scientists: What are the factors that influence whether people are likely to vote; and, in particular, why young people around the world vote in lower numbers than their elders.

They created a lengthy survey and sent it by e-mail to hundreds of IU students to gauge whether certain variables correlated with the likelihood of voting. The students looked at such factors as students' educational experiences, their use of news media, whether they were from Indiana or out-of-state, and whether they received financial aid or worked to pay for their education.

Sam Drummy, a senior from Farmersburg, Ind., tested the hypothesis that constant badgering by campus activists would actually turn people off and cause them not to vote. He said 30 percent of respondents said they were annoyed by activists urging them to the polls, but most voted anyway. A self-described fiscal conservative, Drummy, who plans to attend law school next year, said he didn't like hearing every day from Barack Obama's well-organized supporters.

"It was frustrating to me to hear from the same people telling me to vote for the same person," he said. But he said he was torn between the candidates almost until Election Day, finally tilting to John McCain.

Matt Olsen, a senior from Bloomington, looked at the impact of negative advertising, drawing on what he learned in psychology classes about the stimulus-driven theory of attention. He said taking the political science seminar enabled him to think of the buzz of election-related activity on campus as a sort of laboratory on voting behavior.

"Walking around campus, you'd constantly get ideas for your paper," said Olsen, who also plans to attend law school.

About 450 students responded to the class survey, a significant number. But the sample still appeared to be biased toward graduate students over undergraduates, toward Democrats over Republicans, and toward voters over non-voters -- an extraordinary 91 percent said they voted.

If the class were offered in a non-presidential election year, Smyth said, it would be hard to study the correlation between voting and other variables because too few students would vote. "Our problem this year was finding people who didn't vote," she said.

Smyth said the usual paucity of youth voting is not only a puzzle for political scientists but a challenge for civic life. Data show that, if young people vote in the first election for which they are eligible, they are much more likely to be lifelong voters.

"It's about the health of our democracy," she said.

The experience of the 2008 election on the Bloomington campus, then, seems to bode well for the future. Obama supporters, in particular, were everywhere, urging students to register and vote. They made extensive use of e-mail, Facebook and other technology tools to mobilize voters. The survey found almost no one who claimed that not knowing how to register was an impediment to voting.

"Students felt that their votes mattered," Smyth said. "They really had the idea, if they were Obama supporters, that Obama was going to win if young people voted."

But it's hard to say whether 2008 was a trend or a blip that resulted from Obama's appeal to young people. Turnout for Americans under 30 increased by 4 to 5 percentage points over 2004, according to preliminary analysis by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University. And 2004 also showed an increase in youth voting, after a long period of decline.

But even with the increases, youth turnout this year was only about 52 percent to 53 percent -- well shy of rates for older voters -- according to the center.

Smyth said that, if she teaches the course again in 2012, it's likely that the title will remain the same.

"Even though we did have a high youth voter turnout and a high campus turnout this year," she said, "it's still a puzzle why young people vote in so much smaller a proportion than older people."