Young Black Turnout a Record in 2008 Election

Census Bureau says overall turnout fell, but minorities voted in record numbers.

October 30, 2008, 11:50 AM

July 21, 2009— -- In the historic 2008 presidential election, blacks had the highest turnout among voters aged 18-24, something that has never before occurred in our nation's history, data released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau showed.

According to the new data, nearly 131 million people reported voting in November's election, an increase of about 5 million from 2004. The researchers found that the increase was almost entirely attributed to minority voters.

Barack Obama was elected the first African American president, with 52.9 percent of the vote compared with Sen. John McCain's 45.7 percent.

While the number of non-Hispanic white voters remained statistically the same, about 2 million more black voters, 2 million more Hispanic voters and about 600,000 more Asian voters showed up to the polls.

Thom File, a voting analyst with the Census Bureau, said that while the Census Bureau doesn't look specifically at why this increase occurred, the data does show that this election was unique in the sense of who came out to vote.

"Clearly there was something special about this election in regards to turnout," he said.

Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote, said these numbers did not come as a surprise to her. In 2008, the organization, aimed at getting the young generation to the polls, manned what was the largest non-partisan youth voter registration drive in the nation's history by getting 2.6 million young voters registered.

Smith said the census numbers prove that this generation is highly engaged in participating in the electoral process.

"It solidifies the fact that young people are participating, and really taking their future in their hands by going to the ballot box in increased numbers," she said.

William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institute said the key part of this election is the reduced support of whites for Republicans and very solid support among minorities for Obama.

He calls this a "kind of turning point for the electorate."

"It shows the real power that minority and young people can have between them," Frey said.

According to the Census bureau, non-Hispanic whites and blacks had the highest levels of voter turnout in the November 2008 election at 66 percent and 65 percent, respectively.

Stuart Rothenberg, Editor and Publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, says the key question is whether or not the same voters are going to turn out next year. He says while it is possible, history suggests we should expect a drop of this type of voter.

Overall, however, the share of eligible voters who actually cast ballots in November declined for the first time in a dozen years. One reason was older whites with little interest in backing either Barack Obama or John McCain stayed home.

Census figures released Monday show about 63.6 percent of all U.S. citizens ages 18 and older, or 131.1 million people, voted last November.

Ohio and Pennsylvania were among those showing declines in white voters, helping Obama carry those battleground states.

According to census data, 66 percent of whites voted last November, down 1 percentage point from 2004. Blacks increased their turnout by 5 percentage points to 65 percent, nearly matching whites. Hispanics improved turnout by 3 percentage points, and Asians by 3.5 percentage points, each reaching a turnout of nearly 50 percent. In all, minorities made up nearly 1 in 4 voters in 2008, the most diverse electorate ever.

By age, voters 18-to-24 were the only group to show a statistically significant increase in turnout, with 49 percent casting ballots, compared with 47 percent in 2004.

Blacks had the highest turnout rate among this age group — 55 percent, or an 8 percentage point jump from 2004. In contrast, turnout for whites 18-24 was basically flat at 49 percent. Asians and Hispanics in that age group increased to 41 percent and 39 percent, respectively.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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