Student Voting Guide Why the Youth Vote Matters

Despite their potential impact in the electoral process, young adults (age 18-29) vote at a far lower rate than any other age group in the United States.

Welcome to Your Voting Toolbox

img-vote-2xAt, we’re encouraging college students to get out the vote. We’ve created a comprehensive voter’s guide replete with everything you need to know about voting in an election. Our state-by-state directory explores voter eligibility criteria, residency requirements, registration deadlines, and other voting guidelines in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Our key issues guide takes a bipartisan look at the major talking points of this election, and reviews each candidate’s stance. Our voting rights manual outlines the registration process for college students in all circumstances. Finally, our voting resources list includes links to campus organizations, registration portals, and other sites geared toward college voters.

But first, let’s examine some of the reasons why college-age voters come to the polls in lower numbers than other demographics, and explore a few strategies for boosting voter turnout at colleges and universities across the country.

Why Don't College-Aged Citizens Vote?

The “youth vote” emerges as a topic of media analysis during every presidential election. The 2008 election hinged on the youth vote, and USA Today argues that teens and college students will sway this year’s result too. Young voters have been highlighted as a key demographic internationally as well: analysts pegged the youth vote as a critical component in elections as diverse as the 2015 presidential election in Tanzania and the recent “Brexit” referendum in the United Kingdom.

Despite their potential impact in the electoral process, young adults (age 18-29) vote at a far lower rate than any other age group in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau found that 72% of eligible voters aged 65 or older cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election, while only 45% of eligible voters aged 18-29 did the same. Those trends held in the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, as 75% of 18- to 24-year-old voters wanted to remain. But only a fraction of young voters went to the polls, and the result sparked a firestorm of angry reactions from British millennials, outrage that was perhaps best captured in this tweet:

While this isn’t the place to debate whether the UK was wrong in choosing to leave the European Union, the result demonstrates that older generations are functionally making political decisions for younger citizens at the ballot box. And study after study shows that younger generations often don’t share political views with those from older generations. All of this highlights the push for young people to step up and assert themselves. College voters have the power to shape their own future, and they are certainly not predestined to cede the wheel to older generations (and subsequently complain about the political system).

The Economist has argued that college-aged students forgo voting largely out of apathy, disgruntled with their lack of influence. While certainly true for some, that theory doesn’t explain why so many college students who do have at least a passing interest in politics don’t vote in great numbers either.

A closer look at the electoral process reveals that inexperience may be a more significant factor than indifference. Young voters are inherently novice voters, often in new cities and states for their college education, and they do not always understand the registration process. In a 2014 analysis, the Campus Vote Project estimated that 21% of 18-24 year-olds simply missed the registration deadline. A total of 6.2% of the age group lacked information on how or where to register — which means that 1.7 million eligible youth voters wanted to vote and missed out. For perspective, the popular-vote gap between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 was only 547,398 votes. One simply cannot make the argument that young voters do not matter or that they cannot shape elections.

Voting Rates by Age for 2012 Presidential Election

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Another study argued that students living at home or in their hometowns found it much easier to vote than those who moved away to go to college, as the latter were forced to decipher new laws and absorb potentially higher costs to register. And, indeed, Mary Fitzgerald, a former Professor of Political Science at James Madison University, showed that young people are more likely to vote in states with less restrictive voting procedures. To further prove this point, Kira Lerner of ThinkProgress wrote how North Carolina’s voting laws suppressed the youth vote in the state’s primaries:

About 218,000 North Carolinians, roughly five percent of registered voters, do not have an acceptable form of government-issued ID that is now required under state law to cast a ballot.

Early voting offered a glimpse of the problems that will arise on Tuesday — during the past ten days of early voting, many college students were blocked from the polls. North Carolina’s WRAL reported that 864 people across the state had cast provisional early ballots because they did not have acceptable forms of ID, and four of the five counties with the highest concentrations of provisional ballots from voters without ID were in places with college campuses.

Bob Hall, the executive director of Democracy North Carolina, told ThinkProgress that the voter protection hotline is receiving many calls, “disproportionately from young people and students,” who are being told they do not have acceptable ID, so they have to “go through the maze of filling out forms” and provisional ballots. Those ballots run the risk of being challenged and not being counted.

The law was eventually struck down in a federal appellate court, but many states have similar rules, and the episode reveals how policy can be used to stifle votes from certain demographics.

The evidence suggests that young people do want to vote at higher rates than they historically have. Mikhail Zinshteyn of FiveThirtyEight agreed, and in a thought-provoking piece, he explained that college freshman are more politically engaged than they have been in decades. With all of that in mind, it’s as important to explore what does not affect voting patterns for college-aged students as what does.

Take the case of social media. Candidates from all political stripes have expanded their reach on various social media platforms in recent years. The strategy makes intuitive sense given how often college students use social media: one study found that teenagers may spend as many as nine hours per day on social networking websites. Expanding that beyond the young adult demographic, the Pew Research Center recently concluded that 62% of adults get their news from various social media outlets, with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter representing the highest percentage of news-gathering users.

It may seem strange, then, to discover that increased political outreach on social media has not resulted in higher voter turnout amongst young adults in the United States. In fact, the Washington Post reported that the voter turnout in 2014 was “almost precisely at the 20-year average.”

Politicians have also employed celebrities to serve as avenues for youth outreach in recent years. And while young voters believe that celebrities strongly influence youth political beliefs, early research suggests a flimsy connection. One study surveyed 18- to 24-year-old voters regarding Oprah’s political endorsements. Sixty percent of those people believed that Oprah’s endorsement would influence young voters, while only 15% admitted that Oprah influenced their own beliefs. Perhaps we need to determine how much Oprah’s endorsement swayed that 15% before dismissing the celebrity phenomenon entirely, but the study does show a significant discrepancy between perception and reality.

What does make a difference, then? Money and access.

Young voters face special challenges when it comes to voter registration, due to their hypermobility and their impermanent residency in college towns. For college students, more than any other demographic, access to registration information influences their turnout. The Campus Vote Project offers state-by-state guides for students in all 50 states (plus Washington D.C.). The state-specific guides seek to remove the information barriers and the complexities associated with voter registration. All young voters can click this link to learn how to register and how to cast a ballot.

It’s not just about access to accurate information, or a step-by-step guide on how to vote, though. The monetary restrictions that some states have implemented have kept many students from registering to vote, including in North Carolina. Bachelor’s degree-holders are three times more likely to vote than classmates who did not attend college, and undergraduates (who as a group come from wealthier backgrounds than those who do not attend college) also vote more than contemporaries who are not in school. That split mirrors class divides, as non-college youth are more likely to come from urban centers and are more likely to be African-American or Latino. The same financial restrictions that prevent urban youth from attending college appear to be keeping urban youth from voting as well.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau

A survey of over 6,000 18-24 year olds who did not vote in the 2014 election cycle indicates that over half of young people who failed to vote would have if they hadn’t been out of town or had less difficulty with transportation or the registration process.

To increase turnout among young voters, the first steps are simple enough conceptually: ease voter restrictions and make registration information more widespread. College campuses, and even individual students, can play a crucial role by sponsoring registration drives or by otherwise organizing political participation. Campuses could also set up shuttle services to polling stations, or offer classes on civic engagement and voting. Perhaps they should even increase their outreach to local communities to include non-college youth.

College-aged voters have the potential to significantly impact political elections and to shape their own future, rather than have it shaped for them. It’s simply a matter of increasing access to the voting booth. It’s not, as many would guess, simply a matter of political apathy.

Disclaimer: is not affiliated with any political parties, and none of our staff members are licensed to practice law or make legal recommendations. The information contained on this page is meant to be used as a general guide and should not be a substitution for consulting with government and state election officials.