Will Young Americans Finally Rock the Vote?

After Decades of Research, We Know How to Get New People to the Polls. We Just Don’t Always Do It

To get young people to vote in greater numbers, accessibility and peer encouragement are key, writes journalist Jane Eisner. President Joe Biden with young voters. Courtesy of AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File.

Twenty years ago, I published Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy. The book grew out of a personal passion: Once my oldest child was able to cast a ballot, I became fascinated with the potential and obstacles facing our youngest voters.

I delved into the lengthy and messy midcentury struggle to pass the 26th Amendment, extending the franchise to 18-year-olds. The first bill to lower the voting age was introduced in Congress during World War II—why should young people be old enough to be drafted but not old enough to vote? It had to be introduced 10 more times before it finally was enacted, in 1971.

The bill’s proponents expected the hard-won victory to bring a surge in youth civic participation. Historically, when disenfranchised groups such as women and Black people got the right to vote, participation levels increased. But the 55.4% turnout in the 1972 presidential race remains the highest ever achieved for voters age 18 to 29.


In my book, I identified several causes and short-term solutions, including ending gerrymandering districts (which disincentivizes voting), strengthening civic education, and making registering and voting processes easier. But I noted that enduring solutions would require voting to become a habit—a civic ritual, embedded in the American ethos. Every young person’s first vote should be a communal celebration, I wrote. If we memorialize proms and graduations, why not this rite of civic passage?

We’ve seen cataclysmic changes to the nation’s politics and civic behavior in the years since. Campaigns have moved online, and social media and misinformation have transformed the voting ecosystem. The youth electorate is far more diverse, and the nation far more polarized.

Still, the central message—now borne out by decades’ more research, analysis, and experience—has not changed. Accessibility and peer encouragement drive younger Americans to vote. A galvanizing candidate (Barack Obama, especially in 2008) or a hot-button issue (abortion in 2022) might help. But it is having the opportunity to vote that seems most impactful—and that varies greatly state by state, thanks to the U.S.’s highly decentralized election system. To get more young people to vote and make it a habit, we must dismantle barriers and disincentives.

I remain haunted: Do we, as a nation, genuinely want to welcome new voters?

Positive trends over the last two decades show the way.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, known as CIRCLE, is a nonpartisan, independent research organization based at Tufts University. CIRCLE has compiled youth turnout rates for midterm and presidential election years since 2014. When the group looked at midterm data, all but one of the 40 states tracked had higher turnout in 2022 than in 2014, though the path wasn’t all positive. In 2014, only 13% of 18- to 29-year-old voters went to the polls; turnout climbed to 28.2% in 2018, then slipped to 23% in 2022.

The uptick over the two presidential campaigns CIRCLE followed was more dramatic: 39% in 2016, 50% in 2020. But there were discrepancies among states. The lowest 2016 youth turnout rate, in Texas, was 28%; the highest, in Minnesota, was 57%. The gap between lowest (32% in South Dakota) and highest (67% in New Jersey) only widened in 2020.

Why? CIRCLE’s analyses suggest that election laws may play a central role. Consider: First-time voters must register, while established voters don’t have to. If potential voters move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction—and many young people are very mobile—they must register again.

States with easier, more inviting registration policies often have higher youth voter turnout. CIRCLE found that turnout over the years studied was 9% higher in counties that allow young people to preregister to vote before they turn 18. In 2020, youth voter registration was 10% higher in states with online voter registration.

Conversely, in many states with onerous registration requirements, young people simply don’t vote. Tennessee, Alabama, and Oklahoma do not have same-day, automatic, or pre-registration, and their youth voting rates in the 2022 midterm were abysmal—13% in Tennessee, and not much higher in the other states.

Voting rules vary dramatically across America. Many states loosened rules during the COVID pandemic allowing voting at home, and easier absentee balloting. Some never turned back. Eight states automatically sent mail-in ballots to all registered voters in 2022, and many of these boasted high youth turnout as a result. Data from the National Vote at Home Institute indicates that states with the most generous policies in 2022 had youth voter turnout at or above the national average. States with the most restrictive policies fell far below that average.

Another trend expressly targets younger voters—the growing number of states which require voter identification but won’t accept student ID cards. Permits to carry concealed weapons are often acceptable. Proof of attendance, even at a public university, is not.

This particularly rankles, because college campuses are easy and effective targets for mobilization. In a 2006 study, Elizabeth Bennion of Indiana University and David Nickerson of Temple University found that classroom-based registration drives increased registration by 6%, and voting by 2.6%. Face-to-face presentations worked. Remote outreach such as email, the researchers found, did not.

“The most effective way to mobilize new voters is to catch their attention and to personalize the invitation,” Bennion and colleague Melissa Michelson of Menlo College wrote last year, asserting that voting “is strongly shaped by one’s social environment.”

One might think that more and better civic education would enhance that social environment—I certainly thought so when I wrote my book—but research since then suggests that the results are mixed at best. Knowledge does not necessarily promote action.

Even the most creative and intensive voter mobilization efforts do not confront the underlying structural reasons why so many Americans, especially so many younger Americans, find no purchase in voting. Elections have become increasingly non-competitive in the last 20 years, often decided by a sliver of primary voters who represent the extremes and alienate the rest of us. The Electoral College sweepstakes anoints a few states as essential, and the others as throwaways. Even the fact that Election Day is not a federal holiday suppresses turnout. (Here’s an easy fix: Combine it with Veterans Day. What better way to celebrate freedom?)

The upswing of youth voting over the last few electoral cycles is a hopeful sign. Continuing the trend demands persistence, passion, and patience. The strategies to encourage more young people to vote are sensible, well-documented, and well-known. But 20 years on, I remain haunted: Do we, as a nation, genuinely want to welcome new voters?


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