I attended a zoom seminar titled “Youth Civic Participation: More than Just Voting” that focused on discussing why young people aren’t showing up to the polls, but are among the loudest generation in public performances of protest and speaking out about issues prevalent in their lives. In 2014, college voting rates were 13% due to institutions not showing students opportunities and educating them on why their vote matters for elections, but in 2020 college students were voting at a rate of about 66% with professors enabling students to go out and vote. While the voting rate went up significantly in this period, it still shows that a large population of students and other young people are not voting.
A recent poll done by Data for Progress which took 801 young Americans between the ages of 18-29, shows that about 70% of young people feel underrepresented in Congress. The data also presented the fact that a lot of younger people who are active in voting and civic engagement, hold somewhat similar beliefs despite party lines, with some issues such as the recent student debt relief program announced by the Biden administration gaining about 65% support to 22% against. Another similar issue is the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 which had 65% support among 18-29-year-olds, with only 19% directly opposed to it. While feeling underrepresented in Congress is a reason some people may choose not to vote, that is not the sole reason why young voter turnout is low compared to other age groups.
A press release sent out by the United States Census Bureau in 2021 following the 2020 presidential election provides some insight into some factors that could be why younger generations tend to have such a low voting turnout. The 2020 presidential election had the highest overall voter turnout at a rate of 66.8%. It was found that voter turnout increased as age, educational attainment, and income increased. High school graduate turnout was about 55.5% whereas those with a bachelor’s degree were at 77.9%. As everyone knows, college students are among some of the most financially insecure groups in the United States with a study by Harmony Reppond finding that more than a third of college students were struggling with a lack of food and stable housing. It was found that people with an annual income between $100,000-$149,999 had a turnout rate of 81% and those with an annual income between $30,000-$39,999 had a 63.6% turnout rate. Seeing that people with lower annual incomes tend to not vote as much as those who have a higher annual income only begs the question as to why this happens in the United States.
There are many factors that can contribute to why people choose to vote or not in the United States and throughout the world. Some of those issues are simply socio-economic factors such as population, where a country with a small population would likely have a much higher turnout rate as each vote counts for more, population stability, where people who have lived in an area for a longer period of time are more familiar with their local politics and how a new policy could affect their day-to-day life, and economic development, where economic hardship among the voting body could result in voter apathy due to people being more concerned about meeting the basic needs they need to to survive. There are, however, some political factors that can influence the turnout rate. If an election is considered a close election, more people would be inclined to go out and vote as they believe their individual votes would matter more. Political campaigns also have a major effect on voter turnout, where if more money is spent projecting an upcoming election or specific issues, it makes people more aware and allows people to read more about specific candidates or issues. The CIRCLE from Tufts University provides some specific insight as to why some people don’t vote. It is stated that many people don’t think that the youth voter population decides elections, which only harms everyone involved, because political parties may not engage as much with younger voters and turn their focus on older generations to win them elections. However, this proved to be an incorrect way of thinking as in the 2012 presidential election, young voters swung Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania in favor of President Obama. On top of not being the target demographic for political parties to pursue in elections, there are many simple problems that result in fewer younger people voting. The CIRCLE asked why people who were registered to vote, didn’t vote, and they found that youth of color faced more difficulty to vote due to transportation and voter ID. It was found that youth didn’t vote because they were too busy on election day, (with 58% of white voters stating that being their reasoning and 34% with the youth of color having that be their reasoning), had trouble finding the polling place (25%/18%), had no transportation to a polling place (27%/35%), lines were too long at the polling place (23%/28%), and problems with voter ID (15%/30%). In 2016, there were 27.4 million young voters registered, but only 21.6 million cast their ballot leaving 5.8 million empty votes that could have affected the outcome of the election. This is not because of a lack of understanding on how to vote or who to vote for, but because voting is not easy to access for young people at this current point in time.
Robert Dahl in his opening statement in his book, Who Governs?, says, ‘In a political system where nearly every adult may vote but where knowledge, wealth, social position, access to officials, and other resources are unequally distributed, who actually governs?’ can directly correlate to the issue at hand. There is an opportunity for every American to vote and have a say in the government, but that doesn’t happen. There are many difficulties that voters, especially young voters have to go through in order to serve their civic duty and vote, which only decreases the voter turnout for younger generations even further.
The problem with young voters not being as prevalent as other generations in voter turnout is not from a lack of not wanting to, but more being unable to. Many college students and young voters are busy with the numerous things going on in their lives, and with society pushing for younger people to be more independent earlier on, leaves little room for these people to go out and have their say in the government that controls their day-to-day life.
Photo by: “General Election, Polling Stations” by Catholic Church (England and Wales) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Ana Sophia Sleeman
Middle and low income communities in the United States are socially and politically excluded from government related decisions in spite of the mass protests and movements that have risen through recent years. However, I agree with your point of view regarding that the reason why young voter turnout is low compared to other age groups is not only impacted by feelings of exclusion from the government. Factors such as political disputes, mass protests, disinformation, and misinformation exacerbate the lack of trust between the government and its people. As a consequence, the United States has seen a rise in polarization that has driven the idea of reaching a common good to a far extent. An increase in polarization combined with a decrease of political trust and cooperation are jeopardizing the legitimacy of liberal democracy. Furthermore, if action to address such issues are not properly met, then the United States could face democratic backsliding in the long-term. Leaders should encourage communities to express their positions on issues that are relevant to them by equally prioritizing education and transparency at all times to individuals. Even though voter turnout among younger generations significantly increased this period, political leaders must continue to work towards the development of an inclusive democracy by delivering meaningful and realistic approaches to solutions in the hopes of improving the quality of life of individuals. To end, I also believe that voting should be more approachable, especially to younger generations, as external factors such as studies and transportation can impede an individual to do so.
Cayden Bobley O'Connor
Chris, your discussion of the issue of young suffrage is insightful, and I generally agree with your points, though I think it is also worth highlighting how young people not participating in democracy was the intended outcome for many in power. You mentioned how young people are too busy to vote, or can’t find their polling place, but I think it’s crucial to highlight how this hasn’t come about as accident. Politicians who rely on the support of older voting blocs would never, for instance, vote to make election day a federal holiday; it goes against their electoral interests. The problem of young people not voting, as you said, is not their fault, but is in fact a symptom of our uniquely evil political mechanisms. Our electoral system, which relies on individuals, who are ruled by ambition, desire, and self interest, to represent us as a collective, will always treat groups that maintain their power more favorably than those who could pose a threat.
This is a really excellent article that proposes a lot of less-discussed reasons that may also impact the low levels of turnout among youth voters. While you did bring up the point of many feeling under-represented, I think you did a great job in going beyond this more commonly discussed feature. I especially think the conversation of economic inequalities as a contributing factor is an important one. The polling done by CIRCLE also adds a lot to the article — and I completely agree that the biggest issue among young voters is not disinterest, but inability as you mentioned. Making sure that every eligible voter is able to vote is one of the most important things in preserving our democracy, and I truly hope that we’re able to make policy changes nationwide in order to make that true for all people.