by Simran Saini, LWV-Wake Summer Intern
Voting is one of the most fundamental acts of political participation by which citizens contribute to democracy. Although voting barriers have negatively affected civic engagement among many groups, youth voting specifically can be improved through methods that have been given little attention by the public. Increased civic engagement from the youth could serve as universal entry points for other forms of learning and participation. The factors causing lower levels of voter participation from the youth are both institutional and noninstitutional, and certain concepts can be applied in the future to boost voter turnout. This report outlines the following:
The roots of low youth voter turnout
The impact preregistration can have on youth voter turnout
The impact of age limits on voter participation
The positive changes in recent youth voting trends
The Roots of Low Youth Voter Turnout
According to the US Census Bureau as well as The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, only around 25 percent of young adults aged from 18 to 29 voted in the 2016 elections (Hall, 2019). The top three reasons that these young individuals did not vote were:
They did not like candidates or campaign issues.
They had scheduling conflicts.
They were not interested in the election.
A study conducted by Thomas and McFarland in 2010 found that lack of extracurricular activities was another contributor to low youth voter turnout. Two datasets, the National Educational Longitudinal Study and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, were used as support. In both datasets, groups of around 10,000 students who participated in extracurriculars voted in higher numbers than the average for the age group, with 48 percent of the first dataset and 57 percent of the second voting in two separate presidential elections (Thomas and McFarland, 2010).
The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Voter Turnout
According to Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA), “it is in the best interest of the country to make it as easy as possible for the youth of our nation to go to the polls for the first time (McDonald & Thornburg, 2012).” Preregistration can ease the process of voting through allowing youths to register before the age of 18 via methods such as applying for a driver’s license.
In a 2010 study, McDonald and Thornburg found that preregistered youth in Florida, one of the first states to implement preregistration laws, were 4.7 percent more likely to vote in the 2008 election than youth who registered after the age of 18. In 1990, 17-year-olds were allowed to preregister to vote in Florida, and since then, the Florida voter file has grown by around 8 percent (McDonald & Thornburg, 2012).
Although these results send a message about how preregistration increases youth voting, other factors must also be considered in the study:
Level of efficacy: Youths with a greater interest in politics are more likely to preregister to vote due to increased motivation. Youths who think ahead to preregister are likely to have more political efficacy and to involve themselves with the political system (Holbein, 2014).
Institutional reinforcement: Preregistration is usually encouraged by institutions such as high school. Young individuals who choose to preregister are normally given the option by their high school, where they encounter voting registration drives, civics-based curriculums, and other forms of mobilization. According to a 1988 National Assessment of Academic Progress, exposure to civics curriculums is related to voter turnout in the future (Niemi & Judd, 1998). In fact, one of the reasons youth voting in Florida is higher among preregistered youth is because 71 percent of Florida counties engage in county high school voting demonstrations (Florida Division of Elections).
Campaigns: Voter turnout can also be reinforced by campaign efforts directly. If a young person preregisters to vote and is already on the state voter file, then they are likely to be contacted by candidates or interest groups who want to boost voter turnout (Shields & Hillygus, 2009).
From a broader perspective, the impact of preregistration can improve voter turn out among the youth populations.
The Impact of Age Limits on Voter Participation
The current voting age in the United States is 18. However, if the youth voting age were lowered, voter turnout could be improved. For example, in 2013, Takoma Park in Maryland lowered their voting age to 16; voter turnout rates were four times higher than usual. Hyattsville, Maryland was the second place to lower the voting age to 16; they found that registered 16 and 17-year-olds had higher turnout than older voters. In the 2014 Chicago primary, 17-year-olds had a higher turnout than 20- to 50-year-olds (National Youth Rights Association). Still, data on individual US states is not large enough to be conclusive on the true effects of age limits on voter turnout. When looking at research done in other countries, the data shows similar trends:
Denmark: In a study done at the University of Copenhagen, it was found that every month of added age resulted in a decline in the voter turnout of “first voters.” Eighteen-year-olds were also much more likely to vote than 19-year-olds. Therefore, allowing a lower voter age was found to possibly increase “first voter” turnout (Bhatti & Hansen, 2012).
Austria: Austria is the only European country with a voting age of 16 for national elections. In an Austria-only survey, all voters under 30 were split into four age groups, and under-18s were found to have the second-highest average interest of these four groups (the survey cannot apply to another European country, as the voting surveys of under-18s would be hypothetical due to age limits). Therefore, the efficacy of under-18s who were able to vote in Austria was by no means low (Wagner, June 2012).
Scotland: Scotland is one of the countries with higher youth voting rates, with 63 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds claiming to vote, compared to only 27 percent of their English peers. Youth political engagement is also high, as 62 percent of Scottish 16- and 17-year-olds spoke with family and friends about the governing system compared to 35 percent of their English peers. Research in Scotland was consistent with that of the Austrian research above, showing a boost in youth interest at younger ages (Eichhorn).
Positive Changes in Recent Youth Voting Trends
Low youth voter turnout has appeared as an issue for years, since 18-year-olds first gained the right to vote in 1972, but their turnout has increased substantially in recent years. In all 42 states in which data was available, the percentage of young people casting votes was higher in 2018 than 2014. In 40 out of 42 of these states, youth turnout increased by at least 7 percent, and in 31 of those 40 states, youth turnout increased by at least 10 percent. Of these double digit increases, California, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, and Virginia had the greatest increases percentage-wise (CIRCLE, April 2019).
Causes of this increased voter turnout include the following:
Gender gap: The increase in young women voting may be one of the causes of this increased turnout. According to the US Census Bureau, younger women vote at higher rates than younger men. In addition, the November 2018 Congressional election, when these spikes in youth voter turnout occurred, was accompanied by a record number of women elected to the House of Representatives. In that election 55 percent of women participated in comparison to 52 percent of men, showing a reverse trend from past voting history (Misra, April 2019).
Outreach: According to the director of the data study by CIRCLE at Tufts University, outreach both by campaigns and youth-centered programs could have easily contributed to the phenomenon. In Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams promised a greater investment in youth outreach, and based on a post-election analysis, counties with higher youth populations voted for Abrams by 22 points above the state average (Tufts Now, July 2020).
In order to attain an increase in youth voter turnout, improvements such as widespread preregistration and altered age limits can be applied. Although youth voter turnout is increased slightly due to increase of outreach efforts towards youth, other steps must be taken to maximize youth efficacy overall. If youth voter turnout were to be improved in the United States, additional voices could be added to the missing voices of democracy.
Bhatti, Yosef & Hansen, Kasper M., Leaving the Nest and the Social Act of Voting: Turnout among First-Time Voters, University of Copenhagen (November 2012), http://www.promoteourvote.com/uploads/9/2/2/7/9227685/leaving_the_nest_and_the_social_act_of_voting.pdf
Eichhorn, Jan, Evidence: Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill, School of Social and Political Science, http://www.parliament.scot/S4_ScotlandBillCommittee/General%20Documents/Jan_Eichhorn.pdf
Hall, Heather, Voting Behavior Among Young Adults, Pace University (2019), https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1273&context=honorscollege_theses
Holbein, John B., Making Youth Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout, Duke University (2014), https://sites.duke.edu/hillygus/files/2014/07/Preregistration-10.22.14.pdf
McDonald, Michael P. & Thornburg, Matthew, Registering the Youth Through Voter Preregistration, NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy (2012), https://www.nyujlpp.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Michael-P.-McDonald-Matthew-Thornburg-Registering-the-Youth-Through-Voter-Preregistration.pdf
Misra, Jordan, Behind the 2018 Midterm Election Turnout, US Census Bureau (April 2019), https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/04/behind-2018-united-states-midterm-election-turnout.html
Niemi, Richard & Junn, Jane, Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn, ERIC (1998), https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED431658
Reports, Florida Division of Elections, http://election.dos.state.fl.us/reports/
Shields, Todd G. & Hillygus, Sunshine, The Persuadable Voter, Princeton University Press (2009), https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691143361/the-persuadable-voter
Thomas, Reuben J. & McFarland, Daniel A., Joining Young, Voting Young, CIRCLE at Tufts University (August 2010), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED512250.pdf
Top Ten Reasons to Lower the Voting Age, National Youth Rights Association, https://www.youthrights.org/issues/voting-age/top-ten-reasons-to-lower-the-voting-age/
Wagner, Markus, Voting at 16: Turnout and the quality of vote choice, NCBI (June 2012), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4020373/
Youth voter turnout analysis shows across-the-board increases in 2018 midterms, Tufts Now (July 2020), https://now.tufts.edu/news-releases/youth-voter-turnout-analysis-shows-across-board-increases-2018-midterms
2018 Youth Voter Turnout Increased in Every State, CIRCLE at Tufts University (April 2019), https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/2018-youth-voter-turnout-increased-every-state