It is widely known that there is low voter turnout among those in younger age ranges, particularly those between 18 and 24. Through working as a Suffolks Votes Ambassador I was able to interact with many of these individuals and encourage them to vote in the 2020 election. However, much to my surprise the vast majority of students were already registered to vote in the election or in some cases had already done so through mail in ballots. This got me wondering about youth voter representation as a whole. If the Suffolk student body, for the most part, was so engaged in the process perhaps there is hope for an increase of youth voter turnout in the future.
Youth Turnout in Previous Elections
It is first prudent to ask ourselves what exactly the voter turnout for youth voters looks like overall. A study looking at the youth turnout for previous elections shows that in 2014 an average of 15.3% voters in the 18-24 age range voted in that year’s election. Following that in the 2016 election there was a 44.5% voter turnout for the same age group3. Certainly the most alarming piece of information to be taken from this is the incredibly low rate of voters present in both years; neither of these elections managed to turnout youth voter representation exceeding 50%. Perhaps a more positive piece of information to take from this data is the large difference in voter turnout between the two elections. This difference proves that elections do in fact have the capacity to engage youth voters. Under the right circumstances youth voter turnout can and will increase. Discovering what it is that engages youth voters is essential in understanding and perhaps even fixing low youth voter turnout.
Further exploring youth voting trends in the 2016 election we look at the way in which this demographic voted. One study reports 52% of over 150,000 Republicans from ages 18-29 voting in Pennsylvania for Trump, the biggest win among youth voters in any state so far. Clinton, on the other hand, was not able to turn out youth voters the same way5. One has to wonder why this is. Why was Trump able to produce republican youth voters while Clinton was unsuccessful? The answer may be the social media presence of the two candidates.
When considering the cause for what may influence youth voters to vote an immediate culprit that comes to mind is social media. Certainly the raise in social media is something that has a positive correlation with the passage of time, and as such it’s relevance increases. One study discusses youth voters from 18-24 as a “voting mob” and observes how this group of people express their political beliefs through sharing Youtube videos4. Undeniably there exists this niche group of voters that interact with one another using these new forms of media.
Social media (particularly Twitter) played an enormous role in the 2016 election. One study reports a total of 10,973,629 tweets with hashtags pertaining to the 2016 elections2. This is frankly an immense total of tweets about an election, and considering the large presence of youth on social media it is not outrageous to think there is a correlation between this data and youth voter turnout in 2016. Now, we have to consider what this means for youth voter turnout for the coming election and those following. As this year’s election continues the more it seems clear the 2016 election has set a sort of precedence for the use of social media in the election. Social media has been a very relevant part of the 2020 election so far. As such we may see a similar youth voter turnout as the 2016 election and perhaps even a turnout surpassing it. The secret to increasing youth voter turnout may very well lie in the ability to harness the power of social media.
We must, however, be cautious of this information. Social media is notorious for supplying unreliable information, and particularly does so when it comes to politics and the elections. Pew Research Center reports that an estimate of about 23% of adults have shared an inaccurate or “fake” news story at some point on social media platforms1 Certainly it is important to stress having a reliable source of information when it comes to topics of political importance, however, it cannot be overlooked that a political presence on social media engages voters to a certain extent.
The relevance of social media in this election certainly overlapped with what I experienced as a Suffolk Votes Ambassador. After helping the few unregistered students get registered for the election I had a chance to talk with some of the students about the election. Something I noticed coming up a lot was students talking about what they had seen on Twitter about the election and even a few mentioned seeing relevant information on Tik Tok.
Youth Votes in the Future
Youth voter turnout is still abysmal. There is no denying that a low turnout has existed consistently in the past and is still low now in the present. However, if what I experienced in my time as a Suffolk Votes Ambassador, and what we have seen with past elections, can be considered reliable information, then the future for youth voter turnout may not be lost. Social media is new to society on a relative scale; as it grows we may see youth voter turnout increase. Additionally, social media does not necessarily need to be the sole bastion for youth votes; as previously mentioned this information can be unreliable so it’s not necessarily ideal. The components of social media are what make it successful for engaging youth voters: easy accessibility, quick information, and wide distribution. Anything that can replicate this and do so in a way that provides factual and reliable information could serve as a great substitute in the future. With an optimistic lense, perhaps the future for youth voters is not entirely bleak.
- Anspach, Nicolas M., and Taylor N. Carlson. “What to Believe? Social Media Commentary and Belief in Misinformation.” Political Behavior, vol. 42, no. 3, Sept. 2020, pp. 697–718. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11109-018-9515-z.
- Boatwright, Brandon, et al. “The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and Transition Events: A Social Media Volume and Sentiment Analysis.” Southern Communication Journal, vol. 84, no. 3, July 2019, pp. 196–209. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1041794X.2019.1566398
- Fraga, Bernard, and John Holbein. “Measuring Youth and College Student Voter Turnout.” Electoral Studies, vol. 65, June 2020, p. N.PAG. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2019.102086.
- Reilly, Ian. “‘Amusing Ourselves to Death?’ Social Media, Political Satire, and the 2011 Election.” Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 36, no. 3, Sept. 2011, pp. 503–511. EBSCOhost, doi:10.22230/cjc.2011v36n3a2508.
- White, Daniel. “Donald Trump Won Millennial Vote in Pennsylvania and Maryland.” Time.Com, May 2016, p. 1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=115298464&site=ehost-live.