A victory for democracy, the 26th amendment, passed in 1971, lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 and extended the right to vote to approximately 11 million Americans. The 1972 election the following year saw a 55% turnout of 18-24 years old, a stark contrast to the mere 38% that voted in 2012. In both cases and every election year in between, voter turnout was significantly lower – a difference of “typically 20-30 percentage points” – between 18-24 years old and older cohorts, aged 25-plus. In this paper, I will analyze and attempt to provide insight as to why young, eligible American voters fail to engage in such a fundamental democratic process as compared to their older counterparts. I propose that this trend of low voter turnout among 18-24 years old is a result of systemic barriers ingrained in our government that discourage and, in some cases, altogether prevent the youth vote.
The most apparent systemic barrier to the youth vote is the enforcement of strict, antiquated, and varied voter registration policies by state governments. On average, the 18-24 years old demographic is comprised predominantly of students and young working adults who are naturally transient, relocating to pursue higher education or to follow better employment opportunities respectively. In order that they may vote, state laws require that these young adults either acquire an absentee ballot from their home state (place of permanent residency) or register to vote in their new district. Prior to receiving an absentee ballot, young voters must fill out and mail mandatory paperwork identifying themselves and if necessary (in 18 states), must present a “viable excuse” for requesting the absentee ballot. While this may seem rather straightforward, a study conducted by political scientist Sunshine Hillygus found that approximately “55% of college students messed up filling out their voter registration form, leaving a question blank or not knowing their social security number” (Hartsoe 2018, p. 5). In spite of the high probability of young voters registering unsuccessfully, a majority of states have yet to provide adequate resources to assist them in completing the lengthy forms, leaving many students frustrated, dismayed, and ready to give up. Moreover, because states single-handedly regulate elections as per Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution, they inevitably establish different criteria and deadlines for those registering to vote. A 2012 CIRCLE poll gathered that 87% of young Americans were misinformed about their state registration deadlines and in 2016, “23% of voting-eligible but unregistered 18-19 years old reported missing their state registration deadlines” (Root and Kennedy, 2018). Not surprisingly, a study conducted by the Center for American Progress found that failing to register was the most common reason for not voting among millennials (Root and Kennedy, 2018). Varied and arbitrarily imposed state registration deadlines accomplish nothing and only serve to mislead, confuse, and ultimately disenfranchise young adults, a majority of whom are first-time voters and by default, the only ones that need to register. Furthermore, archaic voting practices such as those that require registration forms be manually printed out and physically mailed to the relevant state departments as opposed to easy-access online voter registration platforms unnecessarily burden and inconvenience young adults who in an age dominated by e-commerce and electronic transactions are oftentimes unfamiliar with the process of sending mail; a study by the United States Postal Service (USPS) found that an alarming 57% of millennials were unaware of how to properly address letters and only 22% of millennials had paid their bills through the mail (Millennials and the Mail, 2018). Even if these young adults do successfully surmount systemic odds and manage to register, absentee ballots come with their own set of hurdles to overcome and complicated instructions to follow; for instance, in Oklahoma, a ballot must be mailed no more than 28 days prior and no later than 2 p.m. on the Monday before the election (Underhill, 2019). Similarly, each state has its own set of early voting policies, further inconveniencing young voters who must make the effort to research their individual state requirements. Alternatively, a student may choose to vote as a constituent of their new district and in that case, must apply for and obtain a state-issued government ID with an acceptable photo; a university-issued student ID no longer satisfies the photo identification requirement in 17 states (Rampell, 2015). To fulfill this requirement, most young adults have to schedule an appointment at the DMV and test for a driver’s license, a lengthy, multi-part process including a vision test, knowledge test, behind the wheel test, and a photograph. Such an extensive, time-consuming requirement disincentivizes the prospect of voting and demoralizes busy young voters who would rather avoid the trouble altogether. 22 states have signed and enforced stringent laws like the latter implementing tough photo identification and those that provide for “shorter voting hours, the end of same-day voter registration, and prohibitions on out-of-precinct voting” (Rampell 2015, p. 3). Instead of improving accessibility and facilitating the navigation of the voting process, states have imposed harsher, more restrictive voter legislation, subsequently thwarting youth suffrage. And though there has been a push in recent years to improve young voter engagement, less than 40% of states have taken initiative to increase voter turnout of 18-24 years old by offering pre-registration opportunities and a mere 34% of states have accommodated those that failed to register on time by permitting same-day voter registration (Root and Kennedy, 2018). Additionally, while federal intervention has been partly successful through the likes of the National Voter Registration Act, commonly referred to as the “motor voter” law, a few systemic issues have become quite obvious, foremost is the fact that most teenagers procure their driver’s license when they turn 16 but a majority of states restrict the registration process to those who are 17 and older (Strama, 2003). Regardless, voter registration policies remain largely cumbersome and inconsistent among states, confusing and deterring eligible young adults from taking the first step and registering to vote.
Another theory contends that a lack of proper education about government operations and avenues for political engagement contribute to low voter turnout among 18-24 years old. Although plausible at first glance, there are a few pitfalls with this explanation, prime of which is the fact that the world is far more educated today than it was previously and yet voter yields continue to be low among younger generations of voters. In 1971, when the 26th amendment was first proposed, 52.3% of Americans had graduated high-school and a paltry 10.7% had achieved a bachelor’s degree as opposed to 88.9% and 35% of Americans in 2018 respectively (Duffin, 2019). Despite this upward trend in educational attainment, voter turnout has steadily decreased with 45% of eligible 18-24 years old voting in the 1976 presidential election as compared to only 30% in the 2000 election (Levine and Lopez, 2002). This statistically significant negative correlation between increased schooling and voter turnout contradicts both the notion that education is the chief determinant of voter turnout and that it affects turnout in a positive manner. Moreover, all 50 states have amended their individual high-school curriculums to require that students complete a U.S. history course and an American Government course in order to graduate (Civic Education Policies, 2016). And since graduation rates in the United States have been on the rise with nearly 90% of Americans procuring their diplomas in 2018, it would be reasonable to assume that with this increased knowledge about the government and the necessity of political participation to a democracy, young Americans would be more likely to vote. Instead, we perceive no such increase in voter turnout among this demographic, but quite the opposite. Furthermore, if we look beyond the United States, we notice that this trend of low voter turnout is not a domestic issue, but rather an international one and one that is independent of education. To illustrate, Canada has the most educated citizenry in the world with nearly 57% of its population holding college degrees and yet the country suffers from low voter turnout among its youth population (Hess, 2018). The same can be observed in Great Britain and Australia, nations with relatively high high-school and college graduation rates. Contrastingly, in countries where education is less accessible such as Ethiopia and Angola, voter turnout of 18-24 years old is the highest (Pintor and Gratschew, 2002). By that logic, we can conclude that it must be some other factor, not education, that motivates or discourages young adults to vote. In Canada, a 2015 National Youth Survey found that young voters were less likely to receive voter registration cards and in Australia, the Electoral and Referendum Act reduced the grace period to enroll after a writ was issued from 7 days to 3 days, resulting in 25% of eligible 18 years old failing to register for the 2013 presidential election (Youth Voting Trends 2019; The Right to Vote 2010; Anderson 2016). On the other hand, in Angola, where voter registration is compulsory, 92.42% of its voting-age population turned out in the 2008 parliamentary elections (IDEA, 2017). We can therefore deduce that while education may be important in cultivating a student’s political attitudes, it does not play the principal role in determining voter turnout of 18-24 years old.
Low voter turnout, specifically among the 18-24 years old demographic, is a threat to nearly every democracy in existence for it is precisely these young voters today that preserve and uphold our democracy tomorrow. Voting is a habit that needs to be learned at an early age and cultivated over time. It is the systemic barriers so deeply entrenched in American government, however, that prevent many young voters from ever developing this habit. And it is these structural issues, namely obstacles to voter registration, that must be immediately addressed and overcome so as to effectively encourage rather than repress the youth vote and protect the integrity of the American political process.