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Low college voter turnout diminishes students’ voice

In Pennsylvania’s Senate race last Tuesday, Republican Pat Toomey defeated Democrat Joe Sestak by a narrow margin — under 100,000 votes. This race was much closer than it first appeared, but it could have been even tighter.

Sestak’s campaign targeted college voters, typically a reliable demographic for liberal Democrats, at least in attitude. They are less so in turnout, as Tuesday’s election showed. This important voting bloc could have made a difference in the Pennsylvania Senate race, but they didn’t. This apathy is disappointing and dangerous. If candidates feel that college students are not a worthwhile demographic to target, they will focus on the interests of other groups.

When the votes were counted, Toomey beat Sestak 51 to 49 percent. Yet among college-age voters — the 18–24 age group — exit polls showed a 60–40 split for Sestak over Toomey.

In the 2008 election, high turnout of college voters was credited in part for Barack Obama’s victory. This was particularly evident in Pennsylvania’s Centre County, the location of Pennsylvania State University. In 2008, 75,000 votes were cast for president, and Obama won with 55 percent of the vote. In Tuesday’s election, though, only 45,000 votes were cast. Toomey won the county by a margin of 2.5 percent.

There are a few possible explanations for this enormous change in electoral results. One is that the population of Centre County dropped precipitously in the two years between elections. This seems unlikely. Also unlikely is that the county demographics went through a major change. The most reasonable explanation is that fewer Democrats turned out this year than in 2008, particularly compared to the Republican turnout. And given that about 40,000 Penn State students are residents of Centre County, we think it is clear that low college voter turnout led to Centre’s swing to the right.

With Pennsylvania’s large college student population, this group could have had a persuasive voice in public debate and in the election. Instead, it merely reinforced the unfortunate stereotype that college students are apathetic about their government.