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Young Voters Could Make a Difference. Will They?

Today, the question seems almost quaint: If young people could vote, would they?

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Sydney Ember
, New York Times

Today, the question seems almost quaint: If young people could vote, would they?

But in the early 1970s, the answer was hardly obvious. The 26th Amendment had just lowered the voting age to 18. Young people were agitated and engaged after a decade of social and cultural upheaval. Here was their chance to put that disaffection to work.

“We will gain a group of enthusiastic, sensitive, idealistic and vigorous new voters,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said at the time.

Despite his convictions, this much has become clear: Kennedy waswrong.

Not only is the turnout rate for young people typically far lower than the turnout rate overall, it also historically lags that of other age groups. Midterm elections have been especially disappointing. In 2014, less than 20 percent of young people voted — the lowest rate ever — compared with roughly 40 percent of the general population, according to U.S. census data.

That trend line is unlikely to change significantly next week, but there are some positive signs for Democrats, who tend to attract young voters more than do Republicans.

Registration among young people is up. Some recent polls have found that more young people say they plan to vote this year than in the last two midterm elections; one released this week by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School found that 4 out of 10 adults under 30 said they would “definitely vote” — which could herald the highest voter turnout rate for young people in decades.

Still, young people have failed to meet expectations in the past, even when they have appeared unusually enthusiastic.

“Young people have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to turning out reliably in high numbers,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which studies youth turnout. “Especially in the midterms.”

— What do you mean by ‘young people’?

Generally, when political analysts say “young people,” they are talking about 18- to 29-year-olds. Sometimes, they are talking about 18- to 24-year-olds. Other times, they are talking about millennials, generally defined as those born from 1982 to 2000. There is a tendency to think “young people” are in college, but many are not. Some are still in high school. Some work. Some are getting graduate degrees. Some are not pursuing higher education at all.

That is all to say: “Young people” are not a monolithic entity.

— Why don’t young people vote?

Lots of reasons.

Voting — and registering to vote — can be logistically confusing, especially for young voters who are often doing both for the first time.

Indeed, young people who are unfamiliar with the process often have no idea what to expect.

“The first two times I actually tried to show up at the polls, I was very surprised they didn’t ask for my ID,” said Adam Strong, who is from rural Kentucky and is now a civic engagement liaison for the national organization Opportunity Youth United. Young people also move a lot, so even if they have registered to vote, they often need to remember to update their addresses.

For college students who want to vote where they attend college, even registering at their new address might not be enough: The governor of New Hampshire recently signed a law that required people to be “domiciled” in the state to vote, a stipulation that would affect its population of out-of-state college students. (A judge ruled last week that the state could not enforce the new voting requirements during the midterms.)

Beyond the legal and bureaucratic hurdles, there are other barriers that disproportionately affect young people. In more urban areas, young people may not have driver’s licenses, which can deter them from voting if they think they need one, or actually prevent them from voting if their state’s laws require them to present photo identification at the polls.

Then there is simple psychology.

“When young people feel like their vote doesn’t matter,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said, “they don’t vote.”

— What issues do they care about?

Lots of things.

Gun control (especially this year, because of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February); women’s reproductive rights (especially this year, because of the shifting makeup of the Supreme Court); climate change (especially this year, because of recent reports on global warming); police brutality (especially this year because … you get it).

“For young people, it’s always been about the issues,” said Sarah Audelo, executive director of Alliance for Youth Action, an organization that targets young voters.

And this year, there are a lot of them. There is also, of course, President Donald Trump, who is his own kind of motivator for young voters. Only 26 percent of young Americans approve of the job Trump is doing, according to Harvard’s recent poll, with 59 percent saying they “will never” vote for him.

— What turnout efforts are being made this year?

Since 2016, organizations have been out in full force trying to talk to young voters, register them and get them to the polls.

Rock the Vote — the nonpartisan group most widely credited with increasing the youth vote in the early 1990s — has introduced a “Democracy Class” for high school students with the goal of registering, or pre-registering, young voters before the midterms. Groups like are sending text messages about the election to young people. The Big Ten football conference is competing to see which school can get more students to vote in the midterms.

Planned Parenthood Votes, Tom Steyer’s NextGen America and the Alliance for Youth Action announced last week that they would “invest six figures” to distribute voter guides before Election Day to more than 2 million young voters in 19 states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Steyer himself, through NextGen America, reportedly plans to spend more than $4 million on digital ads aimed at young voters.

— So a youth wave = a blue wave?

Not necessarily.

But there are reasons Democrats want young people to vote.

Nearly 60 percent of voters ages 18 to 25 identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Two-thirds of likely young voters in Harvard’s recent poll said they wanted Democrats to control Congress.

A recent survey from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts, however, suggests that young people are less likely to identify with a political party, with one-third saying they identify as independents.

— Enough with the windup. Will young people vote?

Maybe! Or maybe not.

Harvard’s poll provided fresh signals that young people could influence the midterm elections more than usual, with 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds saying they were likely to vote Tuesday. That number is higher than it was earlier this year, when the institute released its spring poll, and much higher than it was before the 2014 elections, when only 26 percent of voters under 30 said they would definitely vote.

And the recent poll from the civic learning center at Tufts found that 34 percent of people age 18 to 24 were “extremely likely” to vote, a rate that it said came “close to the levels of engagement seen in the 2016 presidential election.”

Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who compiles early-voting data, said the signs of increased turnout among the young were “modest” and noted that with higher than usual turnout expected overall, “it just makes sense that we are going to see more young people in the mix.” Another thing worth keeping in mind: The turnout rate for young people hovers around 20 to 25 percent in midterm elections. Even if it is higher this year, it will still almost certainly be relatively low.

A final thing to remember: Higher youth turnout is a perennial pre-election prediction, but one that often falls flat.

For “a large chunk of young people,” said Kawashima-Ginsberg of Tufts, “voting isn’t really high on their priority list.”

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