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 U.S.
Welcome to Your Voting Toolbox
At BestColleges.com, 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.
Millennial Civic Engagement and the Power of the Youth Vote
Along with upending common beliefs about political correctness and the value of truth in politics, the 2016 presidential election exposed rifts in American attitudes on class, race, and gender. While these cracks have many origins, the major fault line is generational. Young people increasingly want to live in a diverse, inclusive, and equal nation. The names and issues on the ballot, however, usually reflect the preferences of older Americans.
Generational differences are one reason the 2018 midterm elections are so pivotal for millennials. Another reason is that, though the economy is performing well overall, the economic mobility of millennials — loosely defined as young people born between 1981 and 1996 — is getting worse. And with 435 House seats, 35 Senate seats, and 36 governorships up for grabs, the stakes couldn’t be higher for America’s youngest generation.
While young people lack the political influence and economic opportunities that their parents enjoyed, the country’s demographics are shifting in their favor. Data from the Pew Research Center demonstrates that millennials now match baby boomers as the largest share of the American electorate, and the first post-millennials (known as Generation Z) are now eligible to vote. In the 2018 midterm elections, young voters have the power to reshape the legislative landscape — but only if they show up to the polls.
Millennials care about several pressing issues, including guns, jobs, racism, gender equality, and climate change. Youth-led movements, including a mobilization against gun violence in response to recent school shootings, have also highlighted how passionate young people are driving political conversations despite their growing frustrations with Washington.
There’s just one small hiccup in the millennial agenda: Motivated though they may be, young people are bad — really bad — at voting, particularly during midterm elections.
Despite Millennial Fervor, Millennials May Not Vote
While every demographic typically votes in smaller numbers during midterm elections, young adults are historically much less likely to vote than other demographics in non-presidential election years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, fewer than 20% of eligible voters aged 18-29 voted in the 2014 midterms.
Why do young adults not vote? Contrary to popular belief, they are not politically apathetic; they just participate in different kinds of political activities. In a conversation about youth voting trends, Russell Dalton, research professor at UC Irvine’s Center for the Study of Democracy, disputed the assumption that millennials are disengaged: “They’re more active in lots of things, from working with community groups to giving money to a campaign or political causes… but they’re really turned off by elections and elected politicians.”
This aversion to the electoral process stems in part from a perceived lack of dynamic and effective politicians. In her article “The Psychology Behind How Young People Vote,” developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell says that millennials want elected officials who challenge the status quo, believe in the common good, and speak truth to power. In an age of fake news and talking heads, young people value authenticity above all else. The lack of politicians who meet these criteria dampens millennial enthusiasm.
A larger factor, however, may be more structural than psychological. The voter registration system poses many challenges for young people.
“There are several disadvantages for youth turnout,” explains Professor Dalton. “One, this system is kind of rigged against them in terms of the institutional arrangement [and] registration. Young people are very mobile … [and] there’s been limitations on when they can register and how they can register.” He adds, “If you’re a young person and you’re working one place and you’re living in another, you might have a choice between ‘Do I vote or do I get to work on time?'”
John McNulty, visiting scholar of political science at Binghamton University, argues that simple demographic trends explain millennial voting behavior.
“We know that people who are married are more likely to vote … and the age group with the highest percentage of unmarried people are the youngest cohort,” said McNulty. Younger people are also less likely to own homes, and, as he points out, “people who own homes are more likely to vote than people who rent … because homeowners feel political effects more acutely.”
Why Young Voters Can No Longer Be Ignored
Whether they end up voting or not, there is little doubt that millennials are frustrated by America’s political institutions and those in charge of them. Their precarious economic situation also fuels incentives to change the status quo.
The costs of college, housing, and healthcare have all risen astronomically in the last few decades. Compared to their parents, millennials have taken on at least 300% more student debt, and they’re about half as likely to own a home as young adults in 1975. A staggering one in five Americans aged 18-34 lives in poverty. A 2014 Pew study also found that millennials are worse off in terms of wealth and personal income compared to their parents at the same age.
Young people’s frustrations may make them pessimistic about the direction of American politics, but there are several reasons they are poised to make an impact during this election cycle. For one, the 2018 midterms will feature the most college-educated electorate in U.S. history, and as the 2016 election bore out, educational attainment is a reliable indicator of voter preferences.
The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement also found that voter turnout among college students increased from 45% in 2012 to over 48% in 2016. Moreover, interest in this year’s midterms is greater than in previous congressional elections, with as many as 62% of millennial voters saying they look forward to the midterms, according to a recent Pew study.
There are additional reasons to believe young voters will turn out in higher numbers come November. One is turnout in elections since Donald Trump won the presidency. In the 2017 Virginia state elections, for example, the youth turnout was 34%, twice the state’s 2009 level. Second, highly energized movements around key issues, such as gun control and racial discrimination, suggest that there is considerable momentum among young people to vote their values.
How Will Millennials Vote in 2018 and Beyond?
According to Pew, millennials and their successors, Generation Z, are the only populations to have consistently or mostly liberal views across all measures, which bodes well for Democrats in Congress. The Harvard Institute of Politics found that seven in 10 Americans between 18 and 29 years old prefer Democratic control of Congress — a significantly higher number than in 2017. The poll also found that the number of young Americans who will “definitely be voting” in this year’s midterm elections is at its highest point in recent history.
There are other important factors at work in 2018 midterms besides the youth vote.
In future elections, it may be the synergy of minority, women, and youth voting that makes the biggest impact, particularly among college-educated voters. Aside from the fact that each of these groups leans more Democratic, a 2018 Pew poll shows that all three demographics are more likely to disapprove of President Trump’s job performance.
This synergy may stem from the fact that millennials are more diverse than any previous generation in American history. For example, Pew shows that only 52% of millennials are white compared to 72% of baby boomers. Generation Z is even more diverse, which will have a lasting effect on American politics.
Despite many optimistic signs for Democrats in this age cohort, however, not all polls indicate a decisive advantage. While millennials overwhelmingly disapprove of the president, they increasingly say Republicans are better stewards of the economy, according to a 2018 Reuters/IPSOS poll. The same poll shows that registered voters aged 18 to 34 prefer Democrats to Republicans by a margin of 47% to 33%, slimmer than the margin suggested by Harvard’s poll that covered 18- to 29-year-olds.
According to Professor Dalton, liberalism among young voters “waxes and wanes depending on who is president. The last time the Democrats had such a big surge among the young was back in the New Deal era. And then in the Reagan era there was a bump up in Republican attachments.”
Source: Pew Research Center
What Do Millennials Care About?
Several critical issues will bring young voters to the ballot box in 2018. Based on its polling data, the Harvard Institute of Politics found four issues that particularly motivate young millennials: growing the economy, combating terrorism at home and abroad, uniting Americans to address inequality on every front, and reducing the role of big money in politics.
Other prominent issues driving the youth vote:
- Gun control
A February 2018 survey by Quinnipiac University found that young people between ages 18 and 34 support the Democrats’ position on gun violence, which favors increased regulation, by a margin of 62% to 27%. According to the Harvard Institute of Politics, 61% of Americans between 18 and 29 believe gun laws should be more strict; in 2013, fewer than half felt that way. Young Republicans also say gun laws should be more strict by a 2-1 margin, according to the same Harvard poll.
- Education and college affordability
Student debt affects 44 million Americans and has more than doubled since the start of the Great Recession. In the 2016 election, 61% of voters aged 18-34 said that a candidate’s position on student debt would influence their vote. And according to a 2018 MTV/Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report, 48% of white young people aged 15-24 say the cost of higher education is critically important to them, while 73% of black young people and 68% of Hispanic young people make the same assessment.
- Jobs and unemployment
While jobs are an important variable in every election, not every voting demographic reports the same levels of job insecurity. In the 2018 MTV/PRRI report, 52% of young white people say jobs and unemployment are critically important issues to them, compared to 69% of young Hispanics and 81% of young black people. A plurality of millennials also worry about how advances in technology will decrease employment, according to a March 2018 GenForward survey from the University of Chicago. A May 2017 version of the survey showed that millennials have a dim view of the overall economy, with less than 30% stating the American economy is “very or somewhat good.”
- Racial discrimination
The increased visibility of white nationalism at home and abroad, as well as the vocal ascendance of the youth-led Black Lives Matter movement, highlights how deeply concerned people are about racism in America. According to the fall 2017 GenForward survey from the University of Chicago, racism was cited as the most significant problem in the U.S. among black millennials (52%). According to the same survey, millennials of all racial backgrounds cited racism as one of the three most important problems facing the U.S. today.
- Inequality and the gap between rich and poor
Over the last several years, the astronomical wealth of the so-called “1%” and the relative decline in wealth of America’s middle class has increasingly concerned many voters. According to the 2018 MTV/PRRI survey, 41% of white young people, 52% of Hispanic young people, and 73% of black young people report that the growing gap between the rich and poor is critically important to them.
- Women's issues and gender equality
The #MeToo movement has sparked a national conversation on sexual harassment and constrained gender roles. According to the 2018 MTV/PRRI report, 38% of young women and 17% of young men feel constrained by gender stereotypes.
A May 2017 GenForward Survey demonstrated that healthcare is a concern to many millennials, with 26% of African Americans, 33% of Asian Americans, and 32% of white Americans identifying healthcare as one of the three most important problems facing the country. As of fall 2017, 56% of young Americans in a Harvard Institute of Politics Survey supported single-payer healthcare policies, while 21% opposed. According to the same poll, nearly one-third of Republicans and more than half of independents also supported single-payer healthcare.
- Climate change
While the president calls global warming a hoax, about half of young Americans believe climate change is a critical matter facing the United States, according to the 2018 MTV/PRRI report. In fall 2017, the Harvard Institute of Politics reported that 64% of youth aged 18-29 agreed that global warming is man-made and mostly caused by emissions compared to 55% who agreed in spring 2015.
The University of Chicago’s January 2018 GenForward survey shows that more than 75% of millennials agree that undocumented immigrants who are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) should receive American citizenship. Around 43% of white millennials approve of how President Trump is handling immigration compared to 25% of African-American, Latinx, and Asian-American millennials.
- Net neutrality
The repeal of net neutrality rules by the Federal Communications Commission in December 2017 angered young Americans. According to a March 2018 GenForward survey, most millennials across ethnic and racial groups oppose the repeal of net neutrality and want Congress to create laws protecting it.
What Can Be Done to Increase Youth Voter Turnout?
Young voters face many structural barriers to voting including photo ID requirements, limits on early voting, and voter registration restrictions. Depending on the willingness of lawmakers to expand voter registration, there are a few changes that can potentially bypass these structural barriers and get youth voters more involved in the electoral process.
One idea that is gaining momentum around the country is automatic voter registration. Some states have also created commissions designed to educate students on the importance of civic engagement and voting, while others require voter education and voter registration drives for voting-aged students.
Below, we have compiled resources for students, academics, and policymakers to help get out the vote.
What You Can Do About It
- Rock the Vote
Rock the Vote is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to building the political power of youth in America. The organization was founded in 1990 by music executives in response to the censorship of hip-hop and rap artists. Today, Rock the Vote helps millions of young voters register to vote and turnout at polling locations across the country. Members advocate for voting rights and increased access to the democratic process. Their website hosts a robust resources page, information on how to get out to vote, and an events page.
- Can I Vote?
This website is maintained by the National Association of Secretaries of State and is the nation’s oldest nonpartisan professional association for public officials. It helps eligible voters figure out how and where to go to vote.
This is a free online voter registration tool that includes alerts for voters. TurboVote tracks registration and vote-by-mail rules in all states and can even mail paper copies of required forms to voters with stamped, addressed envelopes for their local election officials. The organization also operates the TurboVote Challenge, an initiative that aims to increase voter turnout in the U.S. to 80%.
This nonprofit digital voting organization helps remove barriers to voting and increase voter turnout. They offer a free online voter registration tool, which allows voters to check their registration status, obtain absentee ballots, find a polling place, and receive election reminders.
Vote411.org was launched in 2006 by the League of Women Voters Education Fund as a one stop shop for election-related information. They offer information to the public on general and state-specific topics, including voter registration verification. The organization also operates a number of hotlines in multiple different languages that can answer voting-related problems.
- The Democracy Commitment
This organization offers best-practices documents on running voter registration drives and getting youth out to vote. These documents are useful for those who are trying to ramp up youth voter turnout, mainly on college campuses.
Research Tools and Resources
- Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement: CIRCLE serves young voters in the U.S., especially those who are marginalized or disadvantaged in political life. The organization performs research that informs policy and practice with the goals of creating healthier youth development and increasing youth civic engagement.
- National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement: NSLVE is the signature initiative of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University’s Tisch College. This study allows academic institutions to learn about their student registration and voting rates, as well as closely examine their campus climate for political leaning and engagement. More than 1,000 campuses around the country are already enrolled, which should help NSLVE create a database that contains nearly half of all U.S. college students.
- Harvard National Youth Poll: This poll is conducted by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and examines the political opinions and civic engagement of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. The first poll was done in 2000 by two Harvard undergraduates, and the spring 2018 round is the 35th edition of the poll.
Special thanks to Ben Strauss and Kyle Kuhn for their help in completing this report.
Disclaimer: BestColleges.com 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.