Nabil Alama didn't vote last week.
He's 19. He's working two jobs. He's got a baby on the way.
He's part of that 18-to-29-year-old voting bloc that "Rock the Vote," "Vote for Change," Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Russell Simmons and Bruce Springsteen were so desperately after.
George Washington freshman voters, all 18: Blade Smith and Amy Hocraffer, in the front row, supported President Bush. In the back row, Megan Royden, Andre Lindsey and Valida Prentice all supported Kerry.
(Grant Gursky For The Washington Post)
"It's not that I don't care about the election," says Alama, who lives in a group house in Vienna and has been working at Tysons Corner since he was 17. He heard the get-out-the-vote radio commercials on 93.9 FM. He knew about the "Vote or Die!" campaign. He read the fliers the college kids were passing around whenever he rode the Metro.
Standing in front of the Cingular Wireless kiosk on the first floor of Tysons Corner, sipping his venti caramel macchiato, the lanky man with droopy eyes has too much on his plate. He works at least 40 hours a week at the Cingular kiosk and another 18 hours a week at Illuminations, the home decor and candle shop only a few feet away. His girlfriend is three months pregnant, and he's worried about how he's going to get her insurance.
"I should have voted," he shrugs, "but I've got a lot to do."
It's those like Alama who have been the target of much recrimination and frustration since last Tuesday. This was, after all, supposed to be the year for the young voter, the exclamation point election, à la Combs's "Vote or Die!"
"Yeah, we rocked the vote all right," quips Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist himself. "Those little bastards betrayed us again."
That's the jeering narrative this past week, the knock against potential voters such as Alama, who just didn't find the time to make it to the polls. But data from the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and many of the voter registration activists say the finger-pointing isn't fair. Since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1972, the voting trend for those under the age of 30 has continually spiraled downward, the University of Maryland-based CIRCLE says.
Until last Tuesday.
The 2004 presidential race, as far as the youth vote was concerned, was a landmark election, bringing out nearly 21 million voters under the age of 30 to the polls, according to Peter Levine, CIRCLE's deputy director.
"This is a big, big gain," adds Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee professor of government and the press at Harvard University. "The Vanishing Voter," his most recent book, examines the causes and consequences of declining voter participation. "For that age group, it's the biggest turnout, in raw numbers, since 1972."
Here's where it gets confusing: Because overall turnout was high, the percent of the youth vote was almost the same as 2000. But percentages can hide as much as they reveal. In figures used by CIRCLE, the youth vote in 2000 made up 16.4 percent of the total, translating to about 16.2 million votes. In 2004, the the youth vote made up 18.4 percent, translating to about 20.9 million votes. That's a jump of 4.6 million, says CIRCLE, and a jump in overall turnout, too. More than 51 percent of citizens ages 18 to 29 voted. In 2000, it was 42.3 percent.