Among the reasons why Democratic candidates face a difficult electoral environment this year has to do with who is most likely going to vote this November. Simply put, midterm voters tend to be much older than presidential voters. Insomuch that young people are an important part of the Democratic coalition, Democrats are thus disadvantaged in midterm elections.
To get a sense of the changing nature of the electorate, consider these turnout rates for citizens reported by the Census Bureau.
The evidence is clear. Turnout rates among young people are precipitously lower than older people when comparing the 2008 and 2004 presidential elections to the 2002 and 2006 midterm elections. The pattern is similar for all the Census Bureau surveys extending back to the first in 1964, and is found on academic surveys dating back to 1948.
Except on the margins, there is no reason to expect that the 2010 electorate will be substantially different than past electorates. We know voting is habit forming: a person who votes once is much more likely to vote again. Perhaps a few more young people will vote because they have been activated by Obama's campaign; they are now registered and know where to vote. However, younger people will likely not vote at the same narrower rates as they tend to do in presidential elections.
It is true that Democrats can sometimes surmount this midterm obstacle. We have no further to look than the 2006 elections. I do not want to digress into the electoral circumstances in 2006 that contributed to the Democrats' victory, which will likely not be repeated in 2010. What most likely will be repeated is an electorate that is less favorable to Democrats than in a presidential election.
What can be done about these disparate turnout rates? A small part of the story is the barrier imposed by voter registration. Ideally, the government should be responsible for registering all eligible persons, a reform that would simultaneously benefit those who are not registered and get outside organizations out of the business of registering voters, which would save them time, resources, and grief. Short of that, portable voter registration - allowing registered voters to transfer their registration to their new polling location when they move within a state - is a policy a number of states have implemented and one that I have found has a modest turnout boost for people who move. This policy also has robust fraud detection since only registered voters can port their registration and it is easy now to verify if a registered person votes more than once.
Even if these registration reforms are adopted, the fact is that only hardcore voters participate in local elections, primaries, and midterm elections. The registration rates of young people are only slightly lower in midterm election years. By and large, these individuals choose not to vote in these elections. Here, the proscription is different. Civic education is needed to inform young people the importance of these elections to their quality of representation, and ultimately the policies governments enact.
Sadly, civic education is not an area tested for in No Child Left Behind. So, change will have to come from the states. An innovative policy implemented in Florida and Hawaii and recently adopted by a number of other states - California, Maryland, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wyoming - is "preregistration" which allows persons as young as age sixteen to register to vote so they are on the voter rolls when they turn eighteen. This policy enables civics education to be tied directly to registering to vote and allows high school students to serve as poll workers (poll workers often must be registered voters).
These and other ideas should be considered since a functioning democracy is one where its elected officials are responsive to all its citizens. With major reforms unlikely to take place before November, however, we should expect an election outcome that largely reflects the interests of those who vote: older people.