Why Don’t Young People Vote, and What Can Be Done About It?

You might imagine that people in rich, highly democratic countries are more likely to vote. And while that’s true in some places — Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden all saw turnout rates of 85 percent or higher in their last elections — citizens of nations with dependably free and fair elections don’t always take advantage of their enviable position. Switzerland’s 2019 presidential election, for example, had a youth turnout of 33 percent and an overall turnout of 45 percent. The United States, with its 64 percent overall turnout and 46 percent youth turnout in 2016, may also fall into this category.

Experts emphasize that there is no single fix to increase youth turnout. Instead, research points to interventions on a short, medium and long-term timeline.

Short term: Get young people the specific information they need to register and make it to the polls. “It drives me nuts when I hear people say, ‘It’s not that hard to go vote,’ or ‘It’s not that hard to register,’” said Jan Leighley, a professor of government at American University. “Actually, the act of casting a ballot in an election is incredibly complex!”

She and other experts recommend mobilization efforts that lead first-time voters through steps like learning how to register and by what date; how a ballot works, what’s on it and how to fill it out; where to go to cast a vote and what to do when you get there. Research cited by Professors Holbein and Hillygus showed that flashier but less precise efforts, like celebrity-driven efforts to increase awareness of voting in general, don’t work.

Medium term: Work to reduce systemic barriers, especially to registration. The strong association between youth and overall turnout suggests that measures aimed at increasing voting for everyone will bring out young voters, too — and maybe even bring their participation rates closer to the general population’s.

In her book about voter turnout, Meredith Rolfe of the University of Massachusetts points out that in U.S. elections, turnout is higher in states that make it easier to register to vote, for example by permitting it right up to an election, having registration offices that are open on evenings and weekends and allowing absentee registration.

And Anthony Fowler of the University of Chicago found that permitting future voters to preregister at age 16 or 17, making them automatically registered on their 18th birthday, increases both registration and turnout by 2.1 percentage points.

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