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Zirpoli: Older voters reliable at the polls

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how women will decide the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign because at least 10 million more women than men will show up at the polls in November. This gender gap, growing since 1964, favors Democrats.

However, another strong voting block — one that favors Republicans — will also show up at the polls in November: Voters over 60 years of age. Like women voters, it is the reliability of these senior citizens that makes them a powerful force, especially in midterm elections when voter turnout is historically low.

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During the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, voters 60 years and older made up 23 percent and 25 percent, respectfully, of the people who showed up at the polls. A majority of them were registered Republicans. In comparison, voters under the age of 30 made up 18 percent and 19 percent respectfully of the voters in those two elections. The majority of them were registered Democrats.

In the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, when voter turnout was especially low, voters over 60 made up 32 percent and 37 percent of voters, while voters under 30 made up only 12 percent for both years. While younger voters typically vote for Democratic candidates, their numbers at the polls are too small to balance the overwhelming number of older voters who lean Republican. This disparity between older and younger voters during midterm elections has been a windfall for Republicans at all levels of government.

In the 2010 midterm elections, for example, seniors aged 65 and older had the "best turnout of any age group" according to Emily Brandon, senior editor for Retirement at U.S. News. About 61 percent of citizens age 65 and older voted in 2010 compared to 54 percent of those ages 55 to 64; 37 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds; and 21 percent of citizens age 18 to 24.

To understand these data is to understand why Sen. Bernie Sanders will frequently poll well with young voters, but then not perform as well against Secretary Hillary Clinton at the polls. Sanders can count on about one in four young citizens to actually vote. Meanwhile, Clinton, more attractive to older citizens, can count on over half of her older supporters to show up at the polls. Add her overwhelming support among women and she starts any election against Sanders with the wind at her back.

Brandon found that even in states that historically have had the lowest voter turnout (Georgia, Virginia and Indiana), more than half the citizens age 65 and older show up at the polls. In states with the highest voter turnout (Washington, Maine,= and Montana) over 75 percent of people age 65 and older vote.

Brandon identified four variables related to the high turnout rate of older voters. First, Brandon states that "Senior citizens have a vested interest in protecting the valuable benefits they receive from the federal government. If these popular government programs for senior citizens were to change, it would dramatically affect the lives of most retirees."

Second, seniors are less mobile. "Every time a person moves to a new address," writes Brandon, "they must re-register to vote." Young people who forget or don't get around to re-registering at their new address may be kept from voting. For example, younger voters who are away at college are frequently prevented from voting in the state where their school is located. This has become especially difficult in Republican-controlled states with new and challenging voter-identification laws.

Third, older voters who are retired have more time to vote. Typically, they don't work and, thus, have more flexible hours to cast their votes. Younger folks may be balancing jobs and school; taking time to vote may be more difficult for them.

Finally, Brandon points out that "Senior citizens are more likely to be longtime residents of their communities, and may be influenced by friends and neighbors of the same age who are also voting. To vote, as Brandon writes, is a "social norm" that younger voters don't share.

While the young may be America's future, many of them are not yet involved in shaping what that future may look like.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is the Laurence J. Adams endowed chair in special education at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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