In the US, people aged 39 or younger compromise more than a third of eligible voters. We are considered more ethnically diverse, liberal, and open-minded than previous generations. Despite this truth, why do we, young Americans, fail to vote – the primary expression of our democracy?
According to John Holbein and Sunshine Hillygus in their book Making Younger Voters, in 2016, although 90% of young Americans reported an interest in politics, and 80% intended to vote, only 43% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 ended up actually casting a ballot. Later, in 2018, 7 out of 10 young Americans (between the ages of 18 and 29) did not vote.
What forces create this American reality?
Historically speaking, low voter turnout among young Americans is nothing new. According to electproject.org, to be exact, since 1986, voter turnout among young Americans has never reached beyond 50%. It came close to 50% in 2008, when Democratic Nominee Barack Obama challenged Republican nominee John McCain, but it still remained below this threshold. Comparatively speaking, older Americans (60+) have exceeded a voter turnout of 50% every year in every election since 1986.
One explanation is that younger Americans are apathetic towards politics. They do not believe the government cares about them, nor that their efforts will produce any meaningful change. Additionally, unlike older Americans, they might not have an awareness of how politics affects them. Why should they contribute to something which they don’t realize affects their lives?
Younger Americans are also sometimes confused about how to vote. Mail-in ballot applications may appear too bureaucratic or complicated; requesting an absentee ballot seems too abstract or foreign. These processes discourage younger Americans from making an effort to vote, even if they have an interest in politics.
Nevertheless, there are some solutions which can be sought. A possible solution to remove the obstacles of voting is preregistration. Preregistration allows sixteen and seventeen year-olds to register to vote before they go to college or join the workforce. This, in turn, allows high schoolers, with more time on their hands, to register before busier periods of their life begin.
Same-day registration also erases the pressure of having to go through a long and bureaucratic process. Currently, only twenty-one states, along with the District of Columbia, have same-day registration. While same-day registration might produce higher turnouts, perhaps we just need to incorporate even younger Americans. In cities like Takoma Park, Hyattsville and Greenbelt in Maryland and Berkeley, California, sixteen-year-olds are able to participate in local elections. If many sixteen-year-olds participated in national voting, this could encourage their older counterparts, 18-29 year-olds, to also engage.
Besides altering registration processes, maybe effective high school civics classes can get young American involved in voting. Not all schools do this, and not all schools do this well. Some schools turn their focus to memorization of facts and figures, producing measures for multiple-choice exams, but not for substantive political engagement. However, if an effective pedagogy encourages students to engage in political issues, through discussion on important issues and encouragement to be civically engaged, it would allow students, younger Americans, to see the value of meaningfully interacting with the institutions which make them American.
Ultimately, participating in American democracy is a gift. We have the ability to determine the legislative branch and the executive branch. Selecting representatives across multiple branches of government is a power not even granted to most of the developed, Western world. Aside from this, if young Americans were to vote in the same numbers that older Americans do (age 60+), it is said that we could have a political revolution, making representatives and political parties turn their attention to our needs rather than the needs of older demographics. As election day draws near, figure out how you’re going to vote. If you did not fill out a mail-in ballot, or an absentee ballot, you can still go to your local polling place on election day. You can find this via the polling place locator.
Have your voice heard. It is your democracy. It is your country. Millennials and Generation Z are the future. And the future is now.