The Real Reason Young People Don’t Vote
Despite potentially being one of the largest and most powerful voting blocs in the US electorate, the majority of young people don’t go to the polls. Why not?
In the 2020 US elections, young people seem poised for unprecedented levels of participation. “Young voters are going to be key to winning 2020,” declared one CNN headline. “These 7 Million Young People Can Beat Trump,” another headline on a New York Times op-ed proclaimed, referencing those just coming of voting age in this election cycle.
These headlines reflect this year’s surge in youth activism, particularly protests around racial injustice and police brutality. Similarly, recent polls offer promise of increased youth engagement. According to a June 2020 poll of 18- to 29-year-olds, 83% believe people their age have the power to change the country. In August, a survey of college students found that 71% are “absolutely certain” they will vote in the upcoming election.
However, if history is any guide, these indicators of youth enthusiasm and interest will not necessarily translate to the ballot box. During the 2018 congressional election, the media predicted a wave of youth turnout after the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, sparked student walkouts, mass demonstrations, and a viral social media campaign. Turnout did improve—to historic levels—but from about 21% in 2014 to about 30% in 2018. So even with the highest midterm turnout rate in decades, two-thirds of young people still stayed home.
The empirical reality is that young Americans have always had dismal turnout rates. Despite being one of the largest potential voting blocs in the electorate, the majority of young people do not vote—not in 2018, or in previous elections. In fact, older voters often turn out at twice the rate of young people in midterm and presidential elections. This gap is even larger in local elections, where the turnout rate among older voters leads by about 50 percentage points. To put this in context, the difference in voting between young and older citizens is larger than the gaps found when comparing race and ethnicity, education, or socioeconomic status.
The gap in turnout between younger and older US voters is among the worst in the world. Our analysis of the latest Comparative Study of Electoral Systems found that the age gap in the United States is larger than for any of the 34 advanced democracies in the study.
And these turnout disparities have significant consequences in American civic life. Not only is it concerning because of the disparity in democratic participation, research shows that it has policy consequences, shaping not only who gets elected but also which policies get implemented. This is reflected in the way that Social Security is considered an untouchable third rail in politics, yet education spending is not.
Why is youth turnout so low? What can we do about it? These are the key questions motivating my recent book, Making Young Voters, coauthored with John Holbein. As I present some of our findings, I also want to focus on how the pandemic adds another layer of complication to this year’s election, and what that probably means for youth participation.
The cause of low youth turnout has been misdiagnosed, with conventional wisdom holding that younger Americans fail to turn out because they are apathetic and disillusioned about politics. The common refrain is that Millennials are cynical and self-absorbed, more concerned about taking selfies than impacting politics. But protests in the streets and the poll numbers clearly indicate that the conventional wisdom is wrong; the reason for low levels of youth turnout cannot be because of a lack of political interest or political motivation. In fact, over the past five presidential elections, an average of 85% of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed before the elections said they are interested in politics, 74% said they care who gets elected, and 81% said they intend to vote, according to the American National Election Study. Political motivation is already high among young people, so this can’t be the key to improving youth turnout.
The real problem among young people is that they often fail to follow through on their civic attitudes and intentions. The gap between intending to vote and actually voting is much larger for young people than for older ones. The key to understanding and solving youth turnout is identifying why young people fail to follow through on their participatory intentions.
In our analysis, we studied this phenomenon using a variety of methods and data including longitudinal surveys, randomized control trials, survey experiments, analyses of voter files, and qualitative interviews. We demonstrated that the link between intentions and behaviors for voting are similar to other behavioral goals, such as the intention to exercise, eat healthily, or study for an exam. The people who are best able to follow through have what are called noncognitive skills—abilities related to self-regulation, effortfulness, and interpersonal interactions. We were first to show that these noncognitive or “soft” skills help to explain voting behavior because they enable individuals to persevere in the face of obstacles and distractions.
What are the obstacles that impede young people from following through on their civic intentions? Young people come of voting age at a time when their lives are highly transient and unstable, which makes the process of registering to vote complicated. The many rules about registration and voting, including residency requirements, registration deadlines, voter ID requirement, and the like, vary widely across states and have an especially large impact on new and young voters.
Simply, when registration and voting are easier, turnout is higher—especially among young people.
To illustrate this point, here are just a few of the laws that those coming of age in Texas must navigate. Although several states allow people as young as 16 to preregister to vote, young Texans must wait until they are 17 years and 10 months old. Furthermore, they must register 30 days before the election, leaving the very youngest with just days to submit the form. Making the task more difficult, Texans cannot register online to vote, and many of the schools and government offices where in-person voter registration is offered have closed because of COVID-19. Even registration drives are difficult to conduct because the state requires certification as volunteer deputy registrar—a certification that expires every election year. If young people do get registered, they must keep in mind that Texas also has a strict voter ID law which considers handgun licenses—but not student IDs—as valid forms of identification.
This may seem extreme, but Georgia and Alaska have similarly narrow registration windows for new voters. Georgia also has a restrictive voter ID law that permits student ID cards—but only for those attending public colleges rather than private. In Wisconsin, students can use IDs, but only three colleges meet the standard, and even then students are required to show proof of enrollment, such as a zero-balance tuition bill.
These laws make it harder for young people to register to vote, and the pandemic is making the process even more complicated. The shift to online teaching has displaced students and created confusion regarding residency rules. For example, some college students are registered in their college town but are now living with their parents, while others are at their colleges, but the schools have shut down. Because states often have obtuse definitions of formal residency, the rules can be confusing. Election law experts emphasize that college students have the right to decide for themselves if they consider themselves a resident of their college town.
Meanwhile, even as concerns about safety of in-person voting have increased interest in mail-in voting, many states have burdensome requirements that differentially impact young people. A July 2020 poll found that half of voters under age 35 felt they did not have enough information to vote by mail. However, in some states, those over 65 are automatically sent an absentee ballot, while those same states may refuse younger voters the right to use COVID fear as a reason to request a mail-in ballot. And there are further barriers. In Alabama, for example, mail-in ballots must be notarized, unless the voter is over 65. Oklahoma, which typically requires absentee ballots to be notarized, also has a law limiting each notary to certifying just 20 absentee ballots. And this doesn’t even touch on the variation across states in mail-in voting postage policies.
Dozens of lawsuits have been filed about the registration and voting rules this election. Whatever the effects of any given rule, one consequence is that there is increased uncertainty and confusion. In North Carolina, where I live, we know all too well the consequences of unstable election rules. A voter ID law was passed in 2013, overturned by the courts in 2016, passed as a constitutional amendment in 2018, and is currently blocked from implementation. All this confusion has a cost: recent research has found that voter ID laws depressed turnout even after they were overturned.
So where does this leave us? It is almost certain that youth turnout will not live up to the headlines. I remain concerned that the pandemic is impacting voter registration—because of shuttered high schools and colleges, residency disruptions, and reduced voter canvassing. Through the spring and summer, voter registration rates were lagging for 18- and 19-year-olds. Many states have seen voter registration plummet during the pandemic compared with 2016.
Another way that young people’s impact may be diminished is that they are more likely than older voters to be forced to submit provisional ballots. One study of states with new voting restrictions found that although 24% of Millennials had to submit provisional ballots, only 6% of Baby Boomers did. Young people are also more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected.
So, what are the solutions?
First, let me again emphasize that trying to increase turnout by making voting cool will not work. Young people are already interested.
We need to make registration and voting easier. And we need these reforms at the federal level, rather than relying on state legislatures, which often mistakenly assume that there are strategic advantages to be had from restrictive election rules.
One of the most discouraging aspects of studying youth turnout is seeing how the misconception about their political disinterest has led to politicization along partisan lines. Making it easier for young people to vote will not inevitably and always benefit Democrats and hurt Republicans. Decades of political science research make clear that assumptions about the partisan advantages of election reforms are often wrong. For example, research shows that mail-in voting has not historically benefitted one side or the other. Even the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the Motor Voter Act, which many political observers assumed would be a big boon to Democrats because it allowed people to register at the DMV, was promptly followed by a Republican take-over of Congress.
Our research on preregistration laws also directly challenges the notion that making it easier for young people to vote will benefit Democrats. In Florida, preregistration laws actually helped to shrink Democrats’ advantage among young people, as those preregistered as Republican were more likely to vote than preregistered Democrats. In North Carolina, preregistration was especially effective at bringing in more unaffiliated registrants than those of either party. What these reforms really do is expand the voter pool, increasing registration beyond party loyalists. These reforms bring in young people who don’t have longstanding party ties and are less likely to vote straight ticket and more likely to switch allegiances between elections.
Another important policy approach would be to rethink civics education. Current civics education, which focuses on memorizing facts about government and history, has precisely zero impact on youth turnout. This “bubble-sheet” civics education might minimally increase political knowledge, but it does not teach young people what they need to know to actually vote. Instead, classes need to talk about current politics, and teachers need better training on how to navigate such topics. Our interviews found that teachers are reluctant to touch on political issues because they fear parents’ objections. Civics must also teach the mechanics of registration and voting, covering, for example, registration deadlines, voter ID requirements, and how to request a mail-in ballot. Schools should also give instruction and help to students to complete voter registration forms.
Importantly, better civics education could help clear up misperceptions about the requirements for being a good voter. Our research found that many young people didn’t feel well enough informed to vote, despite their intentions and interest in doing so. Young people seem to hold themselves to a higher informational standard than do older voters. Whereas more experienced voters might not consider it necessary to research every campaign issue or down-ballot race, young people seem to assume higher informational requirements to be a “good” voter. Young people are more disdainful of party voting and more likely than older Americans to say that “not knowing enough about the issues is a reason they do not get involved.” For example, when asked “Do you feel that all eligible American citizens should vote, or should people only vote if they are well-informed about the elections?” only 40% of 18- to 29-year-olds said all should vote, but among those over 65 the rate was 64%. As the pandemic increases complexity and confusion about the voting process, this gap may be further exacerbated.
Finally, although most of what we need to do to increase youth turnout can’t really be done in this election cycle because of the need to first change laws and improve education, there are lessons for people trying to get out the vote. If you are trying to mobilize young voters, you don’t need to convince them that a lot is at stake in the election. They know. Instead, it might be more helpful to focus on those things that might prevent young voters from following through on their intentions to participate. So instead of noting celebrity endorsements, focus on providing calendar reminders. Provide pizza and water at polling places with long lines. Make sure college students have postage stamps to return their mail-in ballots. And over the next few weeks, double-check with the young people you know; just because they are politically active and engaged does not mean they are prepared to overcome the potential barriers they may face when trying to cast a ballot.