Throughout history, movements, actions, and revolutionary changes have been led by young people. Not only in the United States, but across the world. Despite some (valid) criticism of the way our country handles elections, voting is still one of the most revolutionary acts one can do to create concrete change in our society. But the history of young people exercising their right to vote is a tumultuous one.
Let’s look at the numbers: In 1978 midterm election, only 50 percent of the “Youth” vote, classified as anyone between the ages of 18 and 24, turned out to vote. In the 1996 presidential election, only “three out of ten” young people voted. And in the 1998 midterm election, that number dipped to a 13%. If 50%, 70% and 87% of the missing youth voted in those respective elections, things would have turned out very differently for our country (Source for this date found: Here).
Conversely, in more recent elections, youth turnout has been higher. In the 2000 election, between George W Bush and Al Gore, nearly 50% of youth voted, bringing us back to our 1978 numbers. And in the 2008 election, some states (such as Tennessee), saw their youth voting turnout nearly double (27 to 44 percent). Even in the 2016 election, 50% of youth voted, bringing us up about 5% from 2012.
The youth are a powerful, and largest, voting bloc. According to NPR, “youth make up 31 percent of the voting bloc”. That’s a huge number. In any hypothetical, where youth, despite political differences, all voted the same, they could easily sway an election one way or another.
Youth have the power to change the election and put into power, on the local or federal level, voters who they see fit to represent issues they care about. But we cannot talk about the power of youth without talking about what holds youth back from voting.
National Election Buzz: As a society, we don’t put enough focus on the value of midterm elections--and the numbers show. Nearly 60% of the population votes in national elections, while on 40% vote in midterms. Citizens consistently know of the candidates running for President, due to the media buy-in and how much coverage is given. But when it comes to local government, positions which arguably, have more control over your day-to-day freedoms, many people have no idea who are running. Youth are no different. Schools do not do enough to talk about the power of voting and understanding the political process. Currently, only 25% of students in the United States can pass the NAEP civics assessment. If we boosted that number up to, let’s say, 75%, how would our view of local elections change?
Lack of Faith: Many young people do not believe in the power of our electoral process anymore. And though this might seem like a bout of ‘youthful rebellion’, their views aren’t unfounded. According to the Harvard’s Institute of Politics, only 36% of millennials believe the President will ‘do the right thing’. Congress? 18%? State and local government? 30% & 33% respectively. Why should we expect young people to put their vote, and trust, in a system more than 2/3rds of them believe won’t do the right thing?
Procedural Barriers: Voting should be the easiest thing to do. But for many young people, it’s not. Of the 50 States, only 74% of them allow early voting. And of the 32 states that do allow it, only 20 of them allow voting on the weekend, a prime time for young people, both college and professionals, to vote. And yes, every state allows Absentee voting, but 20 out of 50 states--40%--require some type of documented and approved reasoning. Let’s not talk about the issue of states only having a scarce amount of polling locations. Or how states, with a history of racial oppression, have a higher rate of voter suppression, which targets both young and old voters.
To put it simply, youth can decide an election if they vote. In the 2014 midterm, less than 20% of youth turned out to vote, a truly abysmal number. The narrative many pundits spout about youth being apathetic doesn’t take into consideration the nuances and the systematic barriers that keep the youth from voting. These preventive measures are not random, nor are they deliberate. They are relics of old methods that have been around to keep marginalized and disenfranchised voters from casting their ballots and being a majority force in swaying political power.
In the end, youth still need to put their best foot forward, and rally against these measures in order to have their voice be heard. And when they do, as they have done before, they will change the world in a way none of us are ready for, but our country surely needs.
Political Journalist (Washington DC); worked on the influential Rock the Vote initiative and for AmeriCorps.