My first experience with our democratic system was the 2012 Presidential Election. Though only ten or eleven at the time, and not having a single clue what was going on, I very distinctly remember the sense of bewilderment I felt when walking into that polling center. Every aspect of it was enthralling to me; the passion people had for each candidate outside the polling center, the sheer volume of people that had shown up to make their voices heard, and, what astounded me most, the fact that this system actually worked.
Almost a whole decade later, that experience still sticks with me, and it’s what has driven me to continue to broaden my knowledge of, and continue my involvement in, our system. It’s what drove me to take part in my municipal government, it’s what drove me to volunteer for the Yang presidential campaign, and it’s what drove me to come to the decision that I wanted to devote my time at Suffolk University to the study of Political Science. Many of my friends growing up didn’t vote. I wanted to actively work to change that. That’s why I became a Suffolk Votes Ambassador.
The good news is, the youth vote, though low, may indeed be on the upswing. In 2007, Sarah Hebel tracked the involvement of those aged 18 to 24, and their involvement with voting. Her studies found a stark contrast between the voting patterns of those aged 18 to 24 compared to those aged 55 and older. Hebel found that less than half of those 18 to 24 voted, while nearly 75% of those aged 55 and older did. The good news: that from 2000 to 2004, there was an 11% increase in turnout for those aged 18 to 24. Suffolk Votes is actively working to continue the upward climb in turnout, and it’s very rewarding to be a part of that process.
I had been involved in politics from a fairly young age, and due to that, I’ve been consistently pushed to continue keeping up with it, and continue to take part in our democracy. I am, however, very much aware that very few people have that same experience. In 2016, for example, less than half of eligible Americans aged 18 to 29 voted in the Presidential Election. Less than half. And that number dips even lower in midterm election years. The concept that anyone would actively make the decision not to vote has, and continues to, bewilder me, especially when you consider the political power that is available for many young Americans if they just took advantage of it.
The power of the youth to change our political landscape is out there, people just need to be willing to reach out and grab it: that starts with fulfilling everyone’s fundamental civic duty of voting. As a Suffolk Votes Ambassador, and in my personal life, I’ve spoken with young Americans who simply refuse or don’t care enough to vote. In speaking with many of my fellow peers, friends, and family members, I’ve typically found that, above all else, voting is a habit, and this has been researched professionally. A 2006 Cambridge University Press study put forward a new BDT model used to track habitual voting, what they described as “casual habitual voting.” Which suggested that, generally, those who vote make a habit of it, even if they don’t vote in every single election. If you can get people interested in government young, as I was, and get them voting young, they will carry with them those same principals throughout the duration of their lives. But the issue is bigger, and more complex than solely focused around the concept of making a habit of voting, people need to be aware that their voice matters.
Many people I have spoken with express these same grievances. That their vote doesn’t count. That their voice is not being heard. That one vote isn’t going to do anything. Even those who follow the news and educate themselves on elections have expressed the notion that their vote is useless. It could not be farther from the truth. The way to actually correct this may be, however, mandating the teaching of civics in education. An article posted in 2019 in the Journal of Social Studies Research found that voter turnout rates are notably higher overall among those who take civic courses while in High School. The study also cited involvement with extracurriculars as increasing voter turnout, with a 2.4% increase in likelihood to vote for each activity a student is involved in. There are notable ways of increasing youth turnout in elections, and studies show that voting is a habit. We need to actively work to get people into that habit. This concept, that voting is habitual, and that the probability of going out to vote can be increased at a young age, has led to calls to lower the voting age below 18.
This concept is further explored in John Wall’s research article, “Why Children and Youth Should Have the Right to Vote”, published in 2014 by Colorado University. Wall notes that, despite the fact that children and youth have experienced an increased political standing in parts of the world (he notes the almost universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989), children still almost universally lack the ability to vote. Wall further argues against claims that those under 18 are not competent or otherwise do not have the capacity to vote, stating that no individual over the age of 18 is required to prove such competency. Though the author argued for a system of Proxy Voting for youth until they reach the age of 18, much of his rationale supports the fundamental idea of lowering the voting age.
A more direct look into specifically lowering the voting age to as low as sixteen is explored by Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins in a research article published in 2011. The two argue that American adolescents, by age 16, possess levels of development, engagement, and mental capacity that are in line with those currently eligible to vote. Further, they cited the importance of this, given the growing set of older voters and, as a result of that, the displacement of issues on the national agenda that impact young voters.
Voting is the most fundamental way to influence the system, and influence the policies in which our nation takes up. Protesting, organizing letter writing or lobbying campaigns, and volunteering for candidates you believe in are all incredible ways to influence change, but the people in power have no reason to listen to what you have to say if you aren’t willing to get out and vote for it. The youth vote is one of the largest, untapped demographics in American elections. If we are able to activate it, to harness it, the possibility for change is momentous.
Daniel Hart, and Robert Atkins. “American Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds Are Ready to Vote.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 633, 2011, p. 201. EBSCOhost, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0002716210382395.
Hebel, Sara. “Youth Vote Is Low, but on the Upswing.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, no. 7, 2007. EBSCOhost, http://ezproxysuf.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgea&AN=edsgcl.169769635&site=eds-live.
Fowler, James H. “Habitual Voting and Behavioral Turnout.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 68, no. 2, 2006, pp. 335–344. JSTOR, http://ezproxysuf.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.10.1111.j.1468.2508.2006.00410.x&site=eds-live. Accessed 15 Oct. 2020.
Siegel-Stechler, Kelly. “Is Civics Enough? High School Civics Education and Young Adult Voter Turnout.” Journal of Social Studies Research, vol. 43, no. 3, July 2019, pp. 241–253. EBSCOhost, http://ezproxysuf.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=137100502&site=eds-live.
Wall, John. “Why Children and Youth Should Have the Right to Vote: An Argument for Proxy-Claim Suffrage.” Children, Youth and Environments, vol. 24, no. 1, 2014, pp. 108–123. JSTOR, http://ezproxysuf.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.10.7721.chilyoutenvi.24.1.0108&site=eds-live. Accessed 15 Oct. 2020.