Despite being the largest, most diverse generation in history and a projected 37 percent of the 2020 electorate, young people could have disproportionately low voter turnout in the coming election.
This isn’t a new problem—young people historically vote less than other age groups—but given our current crisis, the risk is even greater and the stakes higher.
For students across the country, Covid-19 has thrown the fall semester into question—and with it the traditional get-out-the-vote organizing that happens on campus. High school and college campuses are central hubs for voting activity, serving as polling places, ballot drop boxes, and key locations for voter registration and mobilization efforts. Studies repeatedly show that on-campus and in-the-classroom voting efforts remain the most consistent way to increase youth engagement and turnout. And young people have also shown a preference for registering to vote at community and school events.
Even if students return to campus in the fall, large community events, where student organizers typically set up their voter registration booths, are unlikely to exist. If schools do away with an in-person semester altogether, getting students to register to vote online won’t be an easy process. Recent research by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) shows that 10 percent of young people have used online voter registration in the states that allow it. Similarly, e-mail has been found to be effective only when it includes a direct link to register completely online. In a study published by the American Political Science Association, voter registration rates increased by 1.2 percent among students who had never registered before when linked to a system that allowed them to register entirely digitally.
Although today’s youth are digital natives, social media and text outreach also is a mixed bag. A 2018 study found that only 5 percent of young people have used text reminders to vote. Social media has been seen to marginally increase youth voter turnout, but only if it is personalized. For example, when Facebook showed users photos of specific friends who had voted in the lead-up to the 2010 election, it increased turnout by 0.4 percent. Similarly, youth voter turnout increased less than 1 percent among those who had received text messages in an experiment conducted by NextGen with young Democratic-leaning voters in Arizona, Illinois, and Virginia.
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While social media and texting can make an impact, the results are still minimal, averaging around one percentage point or less. And without personalization, they are not typically significantly measurable tools to increase youth voter turnout. Without community hubs on campus, our digital youth outreach needs to be peer-to-peer—that is, voter outreach needs to be based on a community model for it to have an impact.
With more states adopting new policies in the wake of the pandemic, vote-by-mail is more likely to be a primary method of voting in the fall. Yet vote-by-mail brings further inequities up to the surface: According to a recent study by CIRCLE, youth of color without college experience are the most likely to vote in person on Election Day but the least likely to vote by mail.
One-fifth of the young people who voted by mail in 2016 did so because their ballot was delivered automatically to their address. But with the uncertainty of Covid-19, many young people have switched locations and do not have the security of knowing where their home will be in November. Not only that, they aren’t made aware that their ballot was automatically sent to their now-defunct address—literacy on the vote-by-mail process among young people remains alarmingly low. We need comprehensive national education efforts on the vote-by-mail process for voting in the fall to be equitable and inclusive of young people from all backgrounds.
There are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic for fall youth voter turnout. The 2018 midterms had the highest youth voter turnout in the past 25 years, with 31 percent of youth ages 18-to-29 casting a ballot. However, further analysis showed that although turnout did increase, it did so fairly equally among all age categories, leaving the age turnout gap largely unchanged.
Covid-19 impacts us all, but the impact on Generation Z is particularly jarring. Gen Z is expected to be the hardest hit by the financial fallout caused by the pandemic, with Covid-19 impacting young people’s careers and life paths now and in the long term.
Additionally, as the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police ignited a national conversation about the generations of systemic racism prevalent in our country, many have suggested voting as a mechanism to bring institutional change. Yet the obstacles are sometimes enormous. In the United States, one in 13 black Americans has lost their right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws. Structural blockages such as the purging of voter rolls, ID requirements, partisan gerrymandering, and intergenerational lack of exposure to voting and civic institutions further suppress these voters. Addressing these preexisting hurdles for young people of color on top of the challenges Covid-19 brings to the surface is vital in understanding why voting is not as simple and accessible as some may assume.
Public officials, educators, community members, friends, and family should all take this opportunity to make politics personal and utilize peer-to-peer incentives to increase youth voter registration and turnout. We must call on our communities to launch comprehensive education efforts to teach young people about voting by mail and other voting methods and push for states to make voting easier for young people. States should adopt more flexible deadlines, and we must push for automatic voter registration and automatic absentee ballots nationally.
Our future now depends on us taking new, bold action to allow for young people’s electoral participation.