Young People Aren’t Turning Out to Vote — but It’s Not Because They Don’t Care
They're not lazy, they're not apathetic, and they're not disengaged.
As exit polls began rolling in following Super Tuesday, March 3rd, so did a common refrain: Young people are too lazy, disengaged, selfish, and apathetic to go vote. Some exit polls reported that youth turnout was down in Virginia, Tennessee, Vermont, North Carolina, and Alabama, and NPR reported that, so far, youth voter turnout has not kept pace with overall increase of Democratic voter turnout, compared to 2016. If young people are this frustrated with the current system, the reasoning went, why didn’t they show up at the polls?
The short answer? Voter suppression — which takes countless forms, including voter I.D. restrictions, inflexible work and school schedules that prevent citizens from taking time to vote, lack of civics education in schools, the sudden closing (or changing) of polling places, lack of childcare or eldercare, and hours-long wait times to cast a vote. A plethora of factors make voting in America less a thing everyone participates in, and more a competitive sport that seems to demand more training and planning than our systems currently offer.
“Instead of blaming young people and assuming they are tuned-out due to narcissism or apathy, we should work together across generations and institutions to remove voter impediments and implement best practices,” said Yael Bromberg, Chief Counsel for Voting Rights of The Andrew Goodman Foundation and Principal, Bromberg Law LLC. She explained that there are a range of obstacles placed in young peoples’ paths to vote, including the “over-reliance by young people on provisional ballots,” voter identification laws, and the issue of accessible polling locations. Bromberg conducted studies on youth voting rights and the twenty-sixth amendment, which also cited cuts to early voting and same-day registration, voter intimidation by election officials sharing misinformation, and gerrymandering as factors that threaten the youth vote.
Dismissing the 18 to 29-year-old voter demographic as apathetic or lazy does a disservice to the country: Instead of acknowledging the barriers that make it difficult or even impossible to vote, critics take the simpler route, rejecting a demographic as non-participatory rather than grappling with solving the systemic issues.
CIRCLE (Center for Education and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University, covered the Super Tuesday youth vote live, and reported youth turnout in Minnesota and Massachusetts, at 19%, are the highest of any Super Tuesday state, with Tennessee, at 5%, being the lowest they have recorded of 2020 Super Tuesday states so far. Here's why those numbers aren't higher.
The Stress of Absentee Ballots
Young people who might be living away from their home state for work or school can vote in their home state via absentee ballot — that is, if the ballot makes it to them in the first place. At this point in young people's lives, so much of the foundation of adulthood — a steady, single address; a routine schedule — is in flux. Our absentee voting system often requires multiple attempts and follow-ups to have a ballot successfully mailed to you, and, of course, there’s the issue of tracking down how to get that ballot in the first place, making it a confusing, multi-step process.
Mercedes Molloy, 19, a student at The New School, had her mother mail her the absentee ballot after it was sent to her parents’ house. After informally polling her peers at school, she found a lot of her college classmates were registered, but they didn’t vote because their ballot wasn’t sent to their college address — it was sent home. The lack of guidance around absentee voting proves to be a “challenge for out of state students, specifically first-generation college students and first-time voters,” she said.
“Voting absentee in college has been such a struggle on my friends and I,” said Malavika Kannan, 19, explaining that even in 2020, she can’t request her ballot online. Although her papers have crossed the country by mail twice (she’s a student at Stanford, but her ballot is coming from Florida) she still hasn’t received her ballot. “If you wanted a system to disenfranchise overworked college kids, this is it,” she said. Kannan added that many colleges, including her own, have student-run initiatives including a week-long booth in their Student Union, in order to help students gain the necessary information and determine how they’ll vote, but that’s not always enough.
“Political science research suggests that the high rate of residential mobility of younger voters makes it so that young voters are less likely to register to vote and keep their registration updated to reflect that mobility,” said Bernard L. Fraga, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University and author of The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America.
Fraga also observed that because young people vote at low rates, "campaigns have little incentive to mobilize a group that they think will be unlikely to vote anyway.” Politicians are thus less likely to talk about issues that matter to young voters, which makes it less likely that those young voters will actually vote. “To break this cycle, we need to look beyond candidates and campaigns as solving this problem,” he continued. “And instead explore policy solutions such as reducing barriers that disproportionately impact youth and increasing the opportunities young people have for civic engagement.”
Inflexible Work Schedules and Polling Times
It ties into work, too: For voters who work multiple jobs, or jobs with inflexible hours, just supporting themselves can be a barrier to voting. In fact, according to Time to Vote, one of the most commonly-cited reasons for not voting is simply being too busy, which says more about the way voting is structured than it does one’s commitment to casting a vote. Olivia Elder, 23, said that while she and her friends are civically engaged, “we all tried so hard to request ballots or take time off work to wait in long lines to vote in person, but in the end we were unable to actually vote.” Many of her friends work hourly jobs. One, for example, couldn’t miss an entire day of her internship to wait in line for seven hours.
Elder started the process in January, but her application for an absentee ballot was rejected twice for small errors, including using an abbreviation and checking two boxes instead of one. And though she sent her third and final application with ample lead time, her county clerk recommended she pay $35-$45 to overnight her ballot.
“Even the day of the primary, I worked from home for the second half of the day and checked multiple times hoping to get my ballot, fill it out, and drop it off at FedEx by 8 p.m.,” said Elder, who would have been a Texas voter. “As of this morning, I have yet to receive my ballot.”
“Don't get me wrong, sponsored Snapchat stories are great reminders, but we could be talking about so much more when we talk about young voter engagement,” she said. Elder believes election days should be holidays, so young people who work in job incompatible with taking time off can still vote, and that absentee applications should occur online instead of by mail. Elder said she still has family members who live in rural areas and struggle to travel to distant polling places. “Growing up Black in the South, I recognize that being eligible to vote is such a privilege in and of itself,” she said. “People died to give me that right, and I want to honor them by exercising it.”
Hours in Line
“Increased voter turnout is something we should all celebrate, but people shouldn't be required to wait in line for multiple hours to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” said Maggie Stern, Youth Civic Education and Engagement Coordinator at Children's Defense Fund - Texas. “Nor are these lines an inevitable result of increased turnout. It's deeply concerning that long wait times are occurring primarily in communities of color and locations where large numbers of young people vote.” (A viral story on lines came out of Texas, where voter Hervis Rogers waited seven hours before he could cast his ballot.)
Lack of Practical Civics Education
Stern added that civics education needs to be action-based and accessible for all students. “We also know that civic education is too often only available in schools that serve wealthier, whiter populations and have the resources to support these kinds of programs,” she explained. "We need to make sure that all students have an education that prepares them to be civically engaged, because our country works better for everyone when every eligible voter casts their ballot.”
Instead of attributing low voter turnout to laziness, it is time for American civics education to engage with the serious issues of suppression that cause the low young adult poll numbers. “When voter-friendly reforms are on the books, such as Election Day Registration, automatic voter registration, early voting, online voter registration, robust high school civics curricula that accompany pre-registration programs, and on-campus polling stations, we see a demonstrated boost in youth turn-out. It is easy to blame and chastise, but we need to pull up our sleeves and work together to implement proven solutions,” said Bromberg. In other words: We need to start now.