Young people are leading. They are organizing for change, serving our nation and our communities, driving innovation, and starting businesses and nonprofits. Increasing their electoral participation would bring new solutions to pervasive problems and transform American politics. But first we need to stop downplaying young people’s potential power to move our society, and start working with them, as research conducted by my colleagues at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life demonstrates.
There are more eligible voters under age 30 than over 65, but turnout among the younger set is low. For example, only about one-third of college students who registered in 2014 actually voted, according to our national study of college-student voters. This research included more than 1,100 campuses across the country, including 65 in Massachusetts.
According to our post-election polling in 2016, among the youngest voters nationwide, less than half believed that public officials cared about what they thought, and even fewer believed that people like them “have a legitimate voice in the political process.” In our subsequent survey of low-income youth, including many living in Greater Boston, only 41 percent thought that local election officials made an effort to ensure that people like them could vote.
Yet we know that young people can mobilize and move elections. In last November’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, youth turnout surged 8 points higher than in 2013 and double what it was in 2009. Nearly 70 percent of these young voters chose the winning candidate, Governor Ralph Northam. And we can see where young people are poised to have the biggest impact in 2018 — from Senate races in Wisconsin and Montana to House contests in Minnesota and Iowa. Already in the primary season it seems clear that young people are expressing their support for change and for new and more diverse voices to represent them, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Ayanna Pressley.
This should not be mistaken for a partisan issue. Young people’s political ideologies are diverse, with many still deciding who they are politically.
Yet despite the opportunity young people represent, older voters, with a longer voting history, are more likely to hear from candidates and campaigns. Young voters are less likely to be approached by campaigns at all, or to hear about issues that concern them: child care, affordable housing, job training, environmental justice, and criminal justice reform.
If you ask a campaign operative why this is the case, you will hear that young people are unlikely to vote, too unreliable, and not worth the expense. Campaigns go for the sure thing. And so the cycle of disengagement rolls along: Candidates don’t make a full effort to reach this group; young people pick up on these signals that they are unworthy of time and attention; and so they don’t engage, don’t register, and don’t vote. It’s a self-fulfilling civic prophecy.
We compound the challenge in other ways. State election laws affect the likelihood that young people will register and vote, as we saw in Wisconsin when its voter identification law disallowed state-issued college IDs. Policies like preregistration and automatic and same-day registration are known to improve the participation of young people and other low-propensity voters, but too often they are unavailable or not widely promoted. In this respect, at least, Massachusetts recently took a laudable step forward by approving automatic voter registration beginning in 2020.
In addition, for decades we have dramatically underinvested in high-quality, comprehensive civic education in our schools. Colleges and universities have shied away from their historic mission to educate young people for democracy. Last month we released new recommendations for how colleges and universities can change that by supporting political learning, voting, and civic participation.
Whether due to toxic partisanship, fear, or inertia, we have perpetuated an electoral system that actively excludes too many. But we can fix it. Engaging a low-propensity voter can be achieved effectively and efficiently.
We know, for example, that voter registration drives are necessary but not sufficient. They work better coupled with opportunities for young people to make a plan to vote — especially together. Our researchers are working with MTV on a new campaign, +1 the Vote, focused on precisely that strategy. Tapping into young people’s relationships with others, including the use of “social pressure” initiatives such as pledge cards, and just listening to young people are engagement practices that work well.
So does “reverse door-knocking.” This means going to where the potential voters are and using the power of community. Low-propensity voters who are served by local organizations and nonprofits may feel comfortable registering to vote with them. Removing barriers and making registration more convenient enhances participation in our shared democracy.
Peer-to-peer contact matters as well. Social media ads are not particularly effective, but here’s something that does work: Talking to young people. Do you want to know what they care about? Ask them. Understanding their reasons for voting (or not) has a doubly positive effect: It engages them in the electoral process, and it can inform the policy-making process.
The long-term impact of voter engagement is even more important. Research shows that voting is habit-forming. Starting early makes it more likely that individuals will continue to vote throughout their lifetime. And voting is a gateway to other forms of civic engagement, such as participation in community groups and advocacy organizations.
Young people are worth the investment. This is not only a moral imperative; it is an equity issue and a practical matter. Whatever your political beliefs, there is no denying that our civic health is strained to the breaking point. Moreover, we face threats to human health, national security, and the environment. When it comes to new ideas, innovative solutions, and community-based action, we need all the help we can get.
If we are to knit back together the civic fabric of our country, we need all hands working together. Let’s start now.
Alan Solomont is dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.