Could Marijuana Initiatives Swing the Youth Vote in Future Elections?

Exit polls suggest states with marijuana ballot measures saw more young voters come out to the polls. But can future campaigns use the issue to their advantage?
by Mike Maciag | December 10, 2012 AT 12:15 PM

A new wave of high-profile ballot measures – along with the demographic groups they resonate with most – seem to crop up every few election cycles. Conservatives long relied on heavy turnout from evangelicals when abortion, same-sex marriage and similar hot-button issues appeared on ballots.

But now, in states introducing marijuana legalization measures, another powerful voting bloc has emerged: young people.

If last month’s results are any indication, younger voters could play a key role in deciding future elections in states with marijuana ballot initiatives. Exit polls suggest voters ages 18 to 29 accounted for a noticeably greater share of voters than four years ago in Colorado, Oregon and Washington – all of which voted on marijuana measures. By contrast, this age group made up roughly the same percentage of the electorate nationally this year as it did in 2008.

Once a fringe issue, marijuana is now legal in 18 states in some form and polls indicate a steady climb in support, making it difficult for politicians to ignore. Accordingly, Democratic candidates – whose voters polls show overwhelming favor legalization – may soon begin to use future ballot initiatives to their advantage.

“This is just the beginning,” said Jill Hanauer, president of the Democratic-leaning political research firm Project New America. “Marijuana is going to be the gay marriage of the next five years.”

Coloradans ages 18 to 29 accounted for 20 percent of voters casting ballots in the state last month, compared to only 14 percent in 2008, according to National Election Pool exit polling data. Hanauer, whose group is based in Denver, said she had worried the marijuana vote could push evangelicals and Romney supporters to the polls. This didn’t happen, though, and president Obama won the swing state.

Still, it’s difficult to peg the actual extent to which marijuana initiatives cultivated the youth vote in states with ballot measures. The most reliable voter turnout data for demographic groups is measured in Census Bureau surveys and will not be available until next year.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) estimated about 50 percent of young Americans voted this cycle, down slightly from about 52 percent in 2008. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, senior researcher for CIRCLE, said marijuana ballot initiatives may have caused young people to not stay home as much as older age groups, who turned out in lower rates this cycle.

Colorado and Washington voters passed measures allowing for adult recreational use of marijuana, while Oregon struck down a proposal that would have permitted its cultivation and sale. Voters in Massachusetts easily approved a vote legalizing medical marijuana, but a similar measure narrowly failed in Arkansas.

As the issue gains momentum and groups in other states organize their own ballot initiatives, candidates will have ample opportunities to target the marijuana voting bloc if they so choose.

“People will use it to drive out the vote and change public policy,” Hanauer said.

Marijuana legalization enjoys far greater support among young voters than any other age group. A Quinnipiac University poll published last week found 67 percent of age 18 to 29 voters favor legalization, compared to just 35 percent for the 65 plus demographic. Nationally, 51 percent support marijuana legalization and 44 percent oppose it.

It’s not so much the thought of lighting up that appeals to these younger voters, Hanauer said. Instead, they view it through the same lens as same-sex marriage – as a justice and fairness issue.

The Quinnipiac poll also showed solid support for legalization among Democrats and Independents, while Republicans opposed legalization by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Views on marijuana regulation don’t always break down along party lines, though. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, came out against the ballot measure. The Republican Liberty Caucus of Colorado and Tom Tancredo, a former Republican presidential candidate and congressman from the state, backed legalization.

Mason Tvert, who was co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Colorado, said issues like marijuana legalization resonate with voters who are disenchanted with the political process and turned off by candidates.

"For a lot of other people who are otherwise disengaged, they might get excited about a marijuana initiative," he said.

Several groups in the state mounted an effort building support for the ballot measure, known as Amendment 64.

Tvert's group organized volunteers who introduced the initiative at precincts throughout the state for the Democratic caucuses, and the state party later adopted a platform including a call for marijuana legalization. Tvert said many of the volunteers he encountered had never participated in a caucus before, but turned out to support the initiative.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an international advocacy group, also coordinated an online phone bank to reach young Colorado voters.

In Oregon, marijuana legalization campaign spokesman Roy Kaufmann said young voters were a high priority. His group worked to mobilize support primarily via social media, while student groups registered voters on college campuses.

"The issue brought out voters who might have sat out certain races," Kaufmann said. "It was the most change-provoking issue on the ballot."

Oregon voters ultimately rejected the measure by a 53-to-47 percent margin.

President Obama and Gov. Romney remained mostly silent on marijuana legalization in their campaigns. If future candidates hope to benefit from marijuana ballot measures, Kaufman says they'll need to first get behind them.

"We’re going to see Democrats in 2014 and 2016 becoming much more aggressive and vocal about their support for this issue, especially if they’re in districts where they’re trying to pick up young and minority voters," he said.

The following table shows estimates for the 18 to 29 age group as a percentage of total voters in the previous three presidential elections, according to exit polls. A representative with Edison Research, which conducts the exit polls for National Election Pool, said the results are comparable year-over-year, but margins of error for states are higher than national estimates.

Age 18-29 Vote 2012 2008 2004
U.S. Total 19% 18% 17%
Colorado 20% 14% 15%
Oregon 17% 12% 13
Washington 22% 10% 12%