For 21 Million Young Voters: What Next?

Voters between the ages of 18 and 30 turned out in record numbers in 2004.

Ten months ago, MTV issued a challenge to young voters: to become 20 Million Loud in 2004. Getting there would be difficult; voter turnout among Americans aged 18-30 had been in steady decline, percentage-wise, since its peak of 47.9 percent in 1992 (according the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, an organization that researches the civic and political participation of young Americans). The logic being bandied about by political pundits was that those numbers would continue to fall. Young voters, they said, couldn't be bothered to care.

But you responded, big time. You proved the naysayers wrong. You took time off from your jobs and ditched classes just to wait for hours in lines at polling stations. Sometimes in the rain, sometimes until long after those polls were scheduled to close (see "20 Million Loud And Then Some: Young Voters Storm The Polls").

According to CBS News analysis of exit polls, more than 21 million of you voted, the highest number in more than a decade. In key battleground states like Ohio and Florida, one in every five voters was under the age of 30. Overall, nearly 52 percent of all eligible 18- to 30-year-olds in 2004 pulled the levers and punched the cards, compared to just 42 percent in the 2000 election.

But here's the thing. Voter turnout wasn't just up among young voters; it was up across the board. Early estimates indicate more than 120 million hit the polls, up from 105 million in the 2000 election, and the results uncovered some clear differences in public opinion.

Voters aged 18-30 supported John Kerry over George W. Bush, 54 percent to 45 percent, the only age group to do so (Bush won the popular vote 51 percent to 48 percent). And according to data collected by The Chronicle of Higher Education, a majority of college freshman supported the rights of gays and lesbians to marry (see "Gay-Rights Groups Hope Courts Will Overturn Marriage Bans"). Clearly, there are some rather wide divides out there (see "Choosing, Not Losing: What Young Voters Are Saying From The Polls").

So where do we go from here? Was the sting of defeat too great for those who supported Kerry? Or can 21 million young voters carry the momentum of the 2004 election into the future? Can the wounds of division made so apparent at the polls be healed?

It depends on who you ask.

On Wednesday, a little more than an hour after Kerry conceded the election, Bush took the stage at the Ronald Reagan Center in Washington, D.C., and, amid a sea of American flags and "W 2004" signs, made a plea for unity. He called out to the 56 million voters who supported Kerry — and the majority of young voters.

"I want speak to every person who voted for my opponent," he said. "To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support, and I will work to earn it. A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation ... and when we come together and work together, there is no limit to the greatness of America."

Nice sentiments, but will young voters reach out to a man that many didn't cast ballots for?

"It takes so much for me to hate someone, but Bush is one man I really, really dislike," said Juan Bonilla, a 25-year-old voter from Hoboken, New Jersey. "I'm gay, so it's frustrating. And my best friend from high school is in Iraq right now.

"But I think it's counter-productive just to hate someone. If he did reach out, I'd be receptive. I think both parties need to meet in the middle, and if neither is willing to budge, we'll never get anywhere, and we'll never get united."

Davi Kligman, a 21-year-old from Austin, Texas, was more skeptical. "It's impossible to say that the country can be unified," she said. "It's really hard now, with everything that's happening in Iraq, and I think Bush forced that polarization. And I don't see how you can have the whole country supporting him. I don't see the next four years as being anything positive."

What young voters do agree on is that regardless of the outcome, the 2004 election should be seen as a rallying point. They believe that voice of 21 million voters is too loud for politicians to ignore — regardless of party affiliation. They see opportunities to do more, to become educated about our government. They mention wanting to get involved in state and local politics, and like Cornell Woolridge, a 26-year-old campaign manager from Arlington, Texas, they realize the power they possess.

"Democracy depends on an active body of citizens," Woolridge said. "And when those citizens become lazy and complacent about standing up, fighting for their rights and letting their voices be heard, democracy dies — and with it, a part of the 'American dream.' "

They cite former Democratic candidate Howard Dean's grassroots manual, "You Have The Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America," as inspiration. And they hypothesize that if the contentious election of 2004 was enough to mobilize 21 million young Americans, imagine what will happen in the wide-open race of 2008. Can anybody say "40 Million Loud"?

"There was so much hype for change on Election Day, and it was a kick in the ass that it didn't happen," Bonilla said. "If anything, that inspires you. I know a lot of people are going to be disgruntled, and don't believe in the election process anymore. But if anything, I think it's a call for youth to get even more involved."

"I think [the voter turnout] shows that younger and younger people are becoming concerned about important issues and are getting concerned about the government," Kligman added. "And that's important, because we're going to be the ones running the country in the next couple of years."