How to Drastically Increase Youth Voter Participation and Reduce Inequities in Turnout

CIRCLE Associate Director Abby Kiesa presents the Growing Voters report, which details ways that institutions and groups can better support young voters and foster democratic participation.

Institutions and communities have not been doing their part to prepare the nation’s young people to participate in democracy, according to a new report from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The report recommends that groups committed to voter growth must adopt a new paradigm to grow voters, eliminate inequities in turnout, and create a more representative electorate. 

The CIRCLE Growing Voters report and framework, introduced this week at an event with civic leaders in Washington, D.C., features exclusive data on the barriers that prevent youth under age 30 from participating in elections, and offers specific recommendations to inform voter engagement work in 2022 and in the future.

The report and its executive summary can be accessed here. On June 14, CIRCLE held a virtual event, open to media and to the public, to share major findings and recommendations from the report.

“The last two elections featured major increases in voter turnout, but we should not be satisfied,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Newhouse Director of CIRCLE. “Youth remain underrepresented in the electorate and participation remains highly inequitable, with some young people’s voting rates as much as 40 points higher than others. That leads to some young people’s views being disregarded in our democracy, and points to a failure of institutions whose role it is to prepare young people to sustain our Republic. We have to do better.”

The CIRCLE Growing Voters report outlines why many current youth voter engagement efforts have been insufficient. It details a shift from short-term voter mobilization to a developmental approach that helps all youth learn about elections.

Newly released data based on an exclusive survey of teens (ages 14-17), CIRCLE survey data from the past two national elections, analyses of voter files, and extensive past research on youth civic education and engagement inform the report’s calls to action:

  • Civic Learning Isn’t Reaching All Youth: 31% of teens, ages 14-17, who were interested in learning about the 2020 election could not take a course on U.S. politics/government in school.
  • Lack of Information = Lack of Registration: 22% of youth, ages 18-21, who were not registered to vote in the 2020 election said they didn’t know how to do it.
  • Campaigns Are Missing or Ignoring Youth: 46% of youth, ages 18-29, weren’t contacted by either major political party or campaign in 2020.
  • Electoral Policies and Programs Are Underutilized: Youth voter registration is 9 points higher in places where youth can pre-register to vote at age 16 or 17, but less than half of states allow it. Youth poll workers programs benefit teens and communities, but in 2020 only 2% of poll workers were under 18.
  • It’s Not Apathy: More than 75% of young people say that they have a responsibility to get involved, that they should participate in political activity, and that young people have the power to change the country.

“This report underscores what we’ve learned in two decades of research on youth political engagement: young people have the potential and the desire to lead at the ballot box and beyond,” says Abby Kiesa, deputy director of CIRCLE. “But, as a country, we haven’t given them all the opportunities and the support to fulfill that potential, or we’ve done it for some youth while leaving others neglected by our democratic institutions,” 

The report includes far-reaching, detailed recommendations for nearly a dozen fields and institutions that have a role to play in preparing youth for democracy:

  • Civic education must reach all youth, feature comprehensive nonpartisan teaching about elections, include key civic skills like media literacy, and help students develop their voice and power as future voters.
  • Election officials must center their efforts on expanding the electorate by giving newly eligible voters and others who haven’t participated before the practical information they need to register and cast a ballot.
  • Policymakers must pass and implement policies that make it easier to bring youth into elections, like pre-registration and lowering the voting age to 16 in local elections.
  • Political campaigns and candidates must abandon the “likely voter” model of mobilization that often neglects newly eligible voters and others who aren’t yet on the voter rolls, as well as meaningfully partner with youth on outreach efforts that go beyond just asking for a young person’s vote.
  • News and other media organizations must see informing young voters as a central part of their civic mission, cover politics and elections in ways that are relevant to youth, and create opportunities for young people to inform reporting and tell their stories.
  • Social media and digital platforms must use their powerful tools and audiences to connect youth with information about elections and to foster valuable media-making that helps youth feel engaged.
  • Community organizations and local groups must serve as political homes for youth, creating pathways to electoral participation centered on the issues youth care about or the communities where they live.
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