The Importance of Youth Engagement in Politics

The reason I created Teens in Politics is to combat youth political apathy. If you’d like to read more about our mission, you can check out our about page. This post, however, is devoted to the state of youth engagement in politics, the causes of youth apathy, and the solutions that lawmakers should implement.

I: The State of the Union

Ever since the advent of polling and the public release of voting data, youth voting rates have been comparatively low. According to the Census, the voting rate of the 18-29 year old demographic has consistently averaged 20 points lower than that of the general population during presidential elections. During Congressional elections (midterms), participation rates are even more egregious. Census numbers show that, from 1998 to 2010, slightly less than 20 percent of 18-24 year olds vote during these midterm races. This troubling trend is set rear its ugly head during this November’s midterm races. According to the Public Religion Research Institute—a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution—only 28 percent of young adults, defined as 18-29 year olds, say they are absolutely certain that they will vote in the 2018 elections. This is compared with 74% of seniors.

The generational divide is also apparent when assessing voters’ consistency. According to the aforementioned PPRI report, only 15 percent of young adults report being consistent voters, as compared with 60 percent of seniors. At least part of the reason for this divide is generational attitudes towards the current President. PPRI reported that seniors are about twice as likely as young adults to have a favorable impression of President Trump (53 percent compared to 28 percent). However, it is important to acknowledge that youth voter apathy predated President Trump.

II: Looking Abroad

If youth voter turnout in America was not bad enough on its own, it’s worse when put into a global perspective. For example, according to British parliamentary research briefings, 65% of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2017 elections. On the other hand, In the 2016 only 46% of 18-29 year olds voted in the 2016 United States presidential election.

A revealing study was conducted by British political science professors Matt Henn, Mark Weinstein, and Dominic Wring that helps explain this disparity. Unlike many other studies on youth apathy, theirs was not quantitative. Instead, they used both panel surveys and focus group data to gain insight into the role that politics plays in the lives of young Brits.

“The results indicate that, far from being apolitical and apathetic, young people do have an interest in political issues.”

Henn, Weinstein, and Wring in A Generation Apart?

The authors wrote, “The results indicate that, far from being apolitical and apathetic, young people do have an interest in political issues.” (p. 174). They had several interesting conclusions, the first being that young people often discuss political issues. Their surveys show that 50.9% of do discuss politics with their friends and family at least ‘some’ of the time, if not more often. This raises the question: how do we account for the disparity between interest in politics and voting. The authors present several possibilities.

“A consistent message expressed in all of the focus groups was that politics is not aimed at young people.”

Henn, Weinstein, and Wring

Comments from focus group participants indicate that if politics were targeted at young people, they would take more of an interest:

- “All politicians complain that they are not getting through to the younger generation, but they don’t give the younger generation any real reason to be interested in politics.”

- “Young people choose to exclude themselves because they find no connection with themselves [and politicians].”

Another possibility is that while young people are interested, they feel that their vote is inconsequential and would not result in change:

- “Why bother—we’re never really going to change things.”

- “I’m not going to change their mind.”

- “We’ve got no interest because we don’t think there’s going to be any change. If we thought there was a chance to change [things] we’d probably be interested.”

III: Solutions

According to the British study, when young people were asked about whether specific policies would increase the likelihood that they vote, only one solution had popular support: multi-day voting. 55.9% of those surveyed said that “spreading voting over more than one day would increase their attendance at elections.

Another policy solution is classroom registration. While it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to attempt to register students at private universities, it could easily do so for the 15 million students who attend public universities. According to a study by professors Elizabeth Bennion and David Nickerson, when undergraduate students were presented information about registering to vote, overall registration increased by 6% and turnout rates increased by 2.6%. If such a policy were implemented in public universities across the country, hundreds of thousands of 18-24 year olds would be added to the voter rolls and turnout would certainly increase.

One policy solution that is already in place in 15 states and the District of Columbia is same-day registration. The premise being that if you show up to your voting precinct, you can register to vote on election day. A study by University of Wisconsin professors Barry Burden and Jacob Neiheisel reveals that same-day voting resulted in an average increase in turnout of 5%. While 5% may not be a jaw-dropping number, it is very significant, especially in light of the current rate.

IV: Going Forward

One of the best ways to reduce political apathy among youth is for you to get involved in local politics. Whether it’s volunteering for a candidate that supports voting reform or volunteering at a voting precinct, there are many ways that you can help. You can also check out our internships page for more information about finding a political internship. While we are currently operational only in New York state, we will expand to the greater northeast for the 2020 election cycle.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like The Definitive Guide to Interning in the Senate.