COLUMBIA — Despite weeks of planning, only 13 people showed up to watch a debate between MU’s College Democrats and College Republicans at Memorial Union on Tuesday night.
With the 2010 midterm election approaching, the rows of empty chairs in Stotler Lounge just a week before the big day raises a question: Will young voters cast ballots this time around?
Two years ago, more than half of voters between 18 and 29 turned out nationwide to vote. In Missouri, that number was 55 percent.
The leaders of both the College Republicans and College Democrats are confident young voters will participate Tuesday.
Both groups ramped up their presence on campus this season in an attempt to garner student support and promote activism. They set up tables at Speakers Circle, held monthly meetings and volunteered with their Boone County party committees.
MU College Democrats President Iavora Vlaytcheva said recruitment this season has been particularly high.
“At our first meeting we had 100 people, a lot of them freshman or first-time attendees,” Vlaytcheva, a senior, said. "It was really exciting to see people so pumped about what’s going on.”
Brett Dinkins, chairman of the MU College Republicans, said the same.
“We have a lot of people coming up with ideas and suggestions,” Dinkins, a junior, said. “This year people are so motivated. They’re out volunteering, holding events on campus.”
“Overall, it’s a very excited and energetic atmosphere,” Dinkins said.
Still, if past data are any indication, young voters will turn out in low numbers. Although midterm elections generally have smaller voter turnouts than presidential elections, participation by those younger than 30 is especially low.
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University reports that in the 2006 midterm elections, 25 percent of voters younger than 30 cast ballots nationwide. In Missouri, that number was 32 percent, but that’s still less than the 54 percent of voters older than 30 who turned out in 2006.
“Young people are the least participatory segment of society,” said John Petrocik, an MU political science professor. “Traditionally, they’re distracted by other things, which has been the case for years and years.”
Petrocik isn’t confident the efforts of campus political groups will pay off at the polls.
“The average voter is 45 years old,” he said. “People who vote are those who have been doing it for a long time and have been exposed to it for a long time. It’s an acquired interest that takes time for younger voters to develop.”
Some students don’t believe they’ll ever develop an affinity for voting.
Martina Clarke, 23, didn’t vote in 2008 and doesn’t plan to do so Tuesday.
“I’m not into politics,” Clarke said. “I never really hear any positive things about them, and it always seems like you never know who’s telling the truth, who’s not. So it’s like people will say anything just to get your vote.”
She’s not the only one. Some students who attended Tuesday’s debate left with unanswered questions and feeling pessimistic about the state of politics.
“I think there are a lot of people who think we’re too far gone,” Hunter Maret, 19, said. “I know a lot of people who have just given up on politics.”
This year, roughly three in 10 voters younger than 30 definitely plan to vote Tuesday, according to a recent survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
The poll concluded that, “a generation marked earlier in the decade by their community spirit and optimism now seems on the brink of a despair similar to that of their parents, grandparents and millions of disaffected older voters.”
In other words, younger voters are fed up with politics. Democrats facing the prospect of major losses see that as a challenge.
In recent weeks, President Barack Obama held several televised rallies at universities, trying to rejuvenate the youth who helped carry him to victory.
But it appears unlikely that youthful enthusiasm will approach anything close to 2008. Young voters’ interests occasionally can be “propped up by something special,” but generally, they are less interested in politics, Petrocik said.