Campaigns court young voters

Jasmine Brewster registers to vote
Jasmine Brewer, 19, registers to vote. She says she's looking forward to voting in her first presidential election.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

"How you doing, ma'am? Have you registered to vote?" asks Tyrone Spann.

Wearing a bright blue t-shirt and holding a clipboard, Spann has spent the last eight months walking the streets of the metro area registering people to vote. This day, he's in downtown Minneapolis.

Spann says he's noticed a definite upswing in registrations lately, especially among young people and first-time voters of all ages.

Tyrone Spann hits the streets
Tyrone Spann has been registering voters for the last eight months, at a rate of about 25 a day. He says he's noticed an upswing in excitement, especially among first-time voters. He says most of the young people he registers say they plan to vote for Barack Obama in November.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

"I usually get around 25 to 30 people to register a day," Spann said. "We are getting a lot of people to register and that's good, and a lot of them are young folks."

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Spann is part of a nationwide effort by Project Vote, a non-partisan nonprofit organization. The group targets people with traditionally low rates of voter participation, people like 19-year old Jasmine Brewer.

Brewer, a Minneapolis nursing student, says she can't wait to vote in her first election, and she knows exactly who she's voting for.

"Obama. We need somebody that's going to help us black folks out here," she said. "That's another reason why I'm voting."

Brewer says her family and friends are also planning to vote for Barack Obama. She says they are angry about the way the Bush administration handled the Iraq war. And they are excited to cast votes for the first African-American candidate with a good shot at winning.

"A lot of people say even if Obama gets up in there, it's still going to be the same, things aren't going to change. But even if McCain gets up in there, a lot of things are going to change."

Spann says he's been hearing the same thing from a lot of people he signs up.

"You hear them talking about it a lot, talking about how they need to get Obama up in there," he says. "That's all the young people are talking about, is getting Obama up in there."

After a downturn around the Republican National Convention, national and state polls are again showing Obama with an edge among young voters ages 18-30, and first-time voters.

The Minnesota Secretary of State's office reports about 5,000 voters added to the rolls every two weeks, putting Minnesota's voter registration rate at record levels. Experts say many of those newly registered voters are under 30, but it's not clear whether the high registration rates will lead to votes.

In 1972, when 18-year olds won the right to vote, roughly half showed up on Election Day. But since then that rate has steadily declined, until 2000 when rates began inching up again slightly.

Still, only about half of eligible voters under 30 were registered to vote in 2006, and only about half of those who were registered actually voted. Turnout has historically been even lower among young people of color, and young people with no college experience.

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs says the youth vote is a wild card.

Tyrone Spann talks to voter Steve Burston
Tyrone Spann talks politics with voter Steve Burston. Despite his worry that young voters may not show up at the polls to cast their votes, he says he's hopeful that this election will be a real turning point. Burston says he's noticed a new level of excitement among young voters this year.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

"We've seen plenty of elections where there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm among younger voters, and then they don't turn up," Jacobs said. "One of the most famous examples was Howard Dean in the Iowa caucus back in 2004, where he had a tremendous amount of what seemed to be strong youth support. But then the youth didn't turn out and actually participate in the caucuses, and his election went up in flames."

Jacobs says stronger youth turnout in 2004 and 2006 are signs that this year's election could finally break with historical trends. And young voters have already made big showings at primaries and caucuses this year.

Travis Symoniak, chair of Minnesota Youth for McCain, says McCain will close the gap with Obama among young voters. He admits that McCain's young supporters may be less vocal than Obama's, but he says they like what they are hearing from the candidate.

"He has the experience that we are looking for," Symoniak said. "He wants to stay in the war and win it, and he knows how to do that and how to do it correctly. And he has the experience to lead the country in the correct direction, especially during this economic crisis, and to make sure there are jobs for us when we get out of college."

But that message doesn't seem to be reaching young voters in downtown Minneapolis.

Cory James, 20, says everyone he knows made sure to register to vote this year, for one reason.

"First black president! He's doing way better than McCain is ever, ever going to do. Everybody I know is voting for Obama, and I know a lot of people," James said. "McCain is just like Bush."

Technology seems to be another major factor connecting young people with the Obama campaign. Brenna Whisney, 23, says that's because Barack Obama has been more easily accessible to them online.

"I think he's doing a great job meeting us where we are online, on Facebook, on Twitter, on tons of stuff. He's just been really involved," Whisney said. "We don't have to go out to find him, he's finding us."

Whisney wouldn't say who she's voting for, but says most of the people her age are going for Obama.

As the afternoon wears on, Tyrone Spann says he'll soon catch the bus back to headquarters in St. Paul.

The bus and light rail are some of his favorite places to register voters. Spann says talking politics every day has made him even more inspired about his own participation. He's already registered all the eligible voters among his family and friends.

Spann, who's 20, says he's really looking forward to voting in his first presidential election.

"A lot of people say the government doesn't care, it's still going to be the same. A lot of people say even if Obama gets up in there, it's still going to be the same, things ain't going to change," Spann said. "But I think it's different. I think things might change if Obama gets up in there. Even if McCain gets up in there, a lot of things are going to change."

Spann wouldn't say who he plans to vote for, but he says there's no doubt that he will vote.