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The Student PIRGs’ New Voters Project is America’s oldest and largest nonpartisan youth voter mobilization program. We started the project in 1984, after witnessing an alarming decrease in youth voter turnout over the previous decade. Over the last twenty years, we developed our theory of the “cycle of mutual neglect” to help explain why youth voter turnout was so weak.
In a nutshell, politicians tend to target voters who already have a track record of voting. Since young people do not have that track record, political campaigns spend most of their resources on older voters. In return, young people perceive that politics is not relevant to their concerns and opt out of participating in the process, which reinforces the conventional political wisdom that young people do not vote.
In 2004, the Student PIRGs’ New Voters Project ran in Arizona (working closely with the Arizona Students’ Association and student governments at the state universities) and over 20 other states, registering 500,000 young voters and making an additional 500,000 personalized Election Day reminders—the largest nonpartisan youth turnout effort in the nation’s history. A study on our project found that our work had a significant impact on turnout.
Youth voter turnout in 2004 increased by 11 percentage points—almost three times more than the general population. This was the largest single election spike since 1992.
The increases of 2004 have sustained themselves for several years, leading us to cautiously anticipate that we may be on the verge of a major breakthrough. Young voter turnout increased in the 2006 mid-term elections and again during the 2008 primaries. Turnout in the 2008 primaries has been particularly spectacular; many states saw youth turnout double and triple over 2004 primary turnout.
There are likely several reasons why youth turnout is finally increasing. For 20 years, increasing numbers of young people have engaged in volunteer activities that have created a fertile climate for civic engagement. Since 2000, the political climate has polarized, elections are very close and therefore the stakes are higher and more people overall are engaged in the outcome. As the elections became tighter, political campaigns looked for non-traditional ways to get an edge over their opponent—precisely at the same time as all the studies on our work came out showing the effectiveness of person-to-person organizing over conventional one-way outreach. Subsequently, the campaigns adopted many of our techniques that, combined with the continuation of our efforts, resulted in more young people being targeted than ever before. Finally, add in the star power factor of many of the candidates and you have an explosive mix. The result is that the underlying impulse to be civically engaged that had previously only been expressed through apolitical volunteerism finally spilled over into the political arena.
However, if a permanent upward trend is emerging, it is fragile at best. The political establishment might be waking up to the value of young voters, but it will take a lot more than one or two election cycles to eliminate twenty years of cynicism towards the youth vote.
This year the Arizona Student Vote Coalition and the Student PIRGs’ New Voters Project will target over 1.5 million students on over 100 campuses in over 20 states.
We are shooting to get at least 65% of our target population out to vote on Election Day. By way of comparison, about 57% of college students voted in 2004.
To do this, we first will need to register between twenty and fifty percent of our target population to vote – or secure between 300,000 and 700,000 new registrations. Then, once the registration deadlines pass, we will call, table and canvass at least 300,000 registered students right before Election Day to remind them to vote.
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