Maggie Hill waited in line for nearly 10 hours to vote for John Kerry (search). She skipped field hockey practice and ate pizza and cookies delivered to hungry students by their professors.
"You gotta stay with it," Hill and her classmates at Kenyon College (search) told one another, as hundreds of them sprawled in the community center in Gambier, Ohio, playing board games, chatting and waiting for one of only two voting booths.
While few young voters had such a tough time at the polls Tuesday, more than 20 million Americans under 30 took the initiative to vote — resulting in a 51.6 percent turnout for that age group, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (search) at the University of Maryland.
CIRCLE researchers based their calculations on exit polls done for The Associated Press and others by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, and found that 18- to 29-year-old turnout was up by 4.6 million voters and more than nine percentage points from exit poll data from the 2000 election.
The figures also beat exit poll numbers from 1992, the last time the youth vote spiked amid an otherwise general decline in turnout since 18-year-olds first got the chance to vote in 1972.
Turnout increased among other age groups, too, leaving young voters with roughly the same proportion of the total electorate nationally as in 2000. But activists who were part of an unprecedented effort to get out the vote — from Rock the Vote and Declare Yourself to the Youth Vote Coalition — felt that didn't detract from their accomplishment.
"To have beaten the '92 number is incredible," said Ivan Frishberg of the nonpartisan New Voters Project. Back then, Bill Clinton defeated the first President Bush.
This time, young voters were the only group that favored Democrat Kerry. The AP's exit polls found that under-30s favored Kerry over Bush, 55 percent to 44 percent, compared to a 48-46 edge for Al Gore in 2000.
While exit poll data provides an early look at young voters, more detailed and definitive information about the youth vote — provided by the Census Bureau — will be available next year, said Carrie Donovan, the youth director at CIRCLE.
Still, experts who track the youth vote say that the initial data shows politicians should take young voters more seriously.
"I think at the end of the day, if you're looking for new voters, young voters will emerge as the best bang for the buck," Frishberg said.
He said he already saw signs of politicians paying more attention to young people in this election. By the end of the campaign in Colorado — one of six states the New Voters Project targeted — he heard political ads playing on radio stations with a young demographic. He also noted that Republican Chuck Grassley in Iowa, who easily reclaimed his U.S. Senate seat, had an ad targeting young people.
Grassley's outreach raises a point to young-voting experts, who say that, despite going for Kerry this time, young voters aren't necessarily a lock for Democrats in the future.
"It's a critical window of opportunity, and it's success that can be built upon. But I think that young people are there for the taking by both parties," said David King, associate professor of public policy and research director at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.
He said there are a number of ways the parties can build on the momentum from this election.
With young people's penchant for volunteering, King suggested getting them involved in state and local politics. He also suggested framing the issue of morality — a flashpoint in this election — in a new way that appeals to young who often defy traditional liberal and conservative labels.
"Then the conversation becomes 'How do we define our role in society? What does the good society look like? How do we love and care for our neighbors?"' King said. "That's the kind of debate that, I think, young people would be very engaged in."
Tara Carolfi, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Wisconsin, said politicians who want to build support from their young constituents also would be wise to address the budget deficit and Social Security.
"We're worried," Carolfi said. "A lot of people feel like it's going to be our responsibility to take care of it."
Back at Kenyon College, Hill said she's disappointed that the first presidential candidate she's ever voted for didn't win.
"But it doesn't deter me from voting," the 21-year-old senior said, noting that the election taught her an important lesson. "Every vote did matter."