Even though it was Hannah Wieditz’s first time being eligible to vote when the 2014 elections came around, she didn’t. A freshman at Iowa State University, Wieditz was busy adjusting to college life and did not have time to dedicate to informing herself on the goings-on of politics. It isn’t that she is ignorant, she said. She used to pay attention to this sort of stuff, especially in high school when she was in government class. But ever since she got to college, she’s been a little preoccupied with other things, and her classes have not held her accountable for keeping up with politics.
Wieditz was not the only young voter to pass on going to the polls.
The youth vote has become a highly sought-after portion of the American electorate for candidates. After all, it pulled through for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The youth vote is generally considered to be the group between the ages of 18 and 25 but sometimes considered to be all voters under 30. By 2020, millennials will be 36.5 percent of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center. Despite the acclaim, the last two presidential elections are exceptions to the norm. The youth vote is historically one of the voting blocs least likely to vote.
In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, adding 11 million voters to the American electorate. In 1972, a presidential election year, 52.1 percent of eligible 18 to 24-year-old voters went to the polls, an all-time high for that age demographic, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Since then, the youth vote turnout has been regularly abysmal for several reasons.
Approximately a decade before the 26th Amendment went through, the education system underwent a shift, said David Andersen, assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University.
“The point of an education system was to teach people how to be citizens, and really in the 1960s we stopped that, and we decided to teach people how to be employees so they can get a job,” Andersen said. “And when you do that, knowing how to vote doesn’t matter.”
In other words, one of the reasons young voters do not vote is because no one is teaching them how to vote. And not only do young voters have to know how to vote, but they have to register and care enough ahead of time to educate themselves on how they will vote. The process may very well be too much to ask of today’s young voters. At least, that is what the low turnouts are suggesting.
It is not just the mechanics of the voting process that matter. Attitude and a sense of civic duty factor greatly into the likeliness that someone will vote.
Elizabeth Matto, assistant research professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and director of RU Ready, said while encouragement and education are important to becoming an active citizen, so are opportunities to actually practice being one. This is true even for citizens that cannot vote yet.
For example, the program RU Ready specifically targets high school students because, by allowing the students to engage at that developmental age through participating in role-play activities and simulations of the legislative process, they become more likely to regularly vote when they come of age. It also makes them more likely to regularly consume news and continue paying attention to politics.
“When you’ve provided that civic education, it gives what is probably one of the most important attitudes that you need in order to be an engaged citizen,” Matto said. “It gives you a sense of advocacy. It gives you a sense that you’re qualified to participate in the political process; you belong in the political process.”
That civic attitude is especially important to have if young voters are expected to vote because distrust in government has been growing. Alex Wirth, senior at Harvard University and chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, said research shows there has been significant decline in trust in government in recent years. When someone distrusts an institution to begin with, they are even less likely to believe their vote makes a difference.
What remains the most telling indictor of whether someone will vote is whether the person has voted previously. The generational lack of civic responsibility and general political incompetence and lack of information make it even harder to get young voters to the polls.
“There’s no denying that there’s a very different sense of citizenship among millennials that will always be a hurdle when it comes to getting young people to turn out to vote,” Matto said.
Matto said there are stark attitudinal differences between older and younger voters, especially when it comes to sense of civic duty and responsibility.
For example, Linda Murken, president of the Ames League of Women Voters in Iowa, came of voting age when the Vietnam War was raging.
“People were very involved politically. Students were very involved, you know, everybody was very involved. You didn’t just vote, you marched, you did a whole bunch of other things,” Murken said. “We had reason, and it was because… there was a draft. And that was the big reason that people were involved- because politics affected them personally.”
That connection to politics is the key to getting people to care enough to vote, said Christopher Larimer, associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa.
By the time the end of the ‘70s came around and the ‘80s rolled in, there had been a decline in young voter turnout. There was also much less reason for young voters to head to the polls.
Today, getting young voters to relate to the issues at hand is difficult. Politicians generally do not talk about things that matter to students, Andersen said.
That, however, is not always necessarily the case, especially during campaign season.
“Bruce Braley really tried to focus on students, especially highlighting college affordability,” said Zoë Kustritz, president of the ISU College Democrats about the 2014 candidate for a retiring senator’s seat. “I think it was a lot easier for him to relate to us.”
When the conversation is outside of an election, however, the younger crowd could find the topics to be drier, as Andersen suggested.
“I can understand when people say, ‘well my vote doesn’t matter.’ But the reality is if a lot of people said ‘my vote doesn’t matter,’ it could swing an election,” Murken said. “Votes are important.”
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2008, Obama got 66 percent of the vote for those under 30 years of age. Larimer said Obama would have won anyway; what is so significant is how Obama was able to enthuse the younger crowds.
“People got kind of excited about that and said, ‘wow, maybe young people today really care about politics and voting,’ and then in 2010 they disappeared,” Andersen said.
And then they kind of reappeared in 2012.
And then they disappeared again in 2014.
Which leaves the question: Do today’s young people of America only care about presidents and not congress, or are the peaks in 2008 and 2012 directly related to what Andersen called an “Obama effect?” Compared to a presidential election, midterm election voter turnout is always down, regardless of age.
“Obama was very innovative, especially in his 2008 campaign and again in 2012, in contacting young people in ways that young people were receptive to,” Andersen said. “He used social media. He had kind of a cool social media presence, and that encouraged young people to vote.”
It also did not hurt that younger candidates tend to resonate better with younger voters. So was it Obama himself that drew the young voters out to the polls?
“It’s a big open question. We’ll find out in 2016,” Andersen said.
Another thing to bear in mind about the youth vote is where it stands in relation to other demographics.
The share of the electorate that is made up by white men is shrinking. That demographic also happens to be the core of the Republican party, which makes it more difficult for Republicans to win in national elections- their voters are disappearing. It becomes especially difficult with the fact that young voters tend to vote for Democrats, as do minorities.
By 2020, Andersen said expectations are that the minority vote in some states that are now clearly red may be competitive because of minorities. According to the U.S. Census, minority births outnumbered white births in America in 2011, reaching an unprecedented 50.4 percent.
“It’s not that we’ve really seen changes in voting patterns of people in the country. We’ve seen changes in people in the country, which is really interesting,” Andersen said. “This country is becoming much more diverse, and the diversity is sticking.”
To put the icing on the cake, the number of disaffected voters appears to be rising. Just ask Tyler Gilbreath, a junior at Iowa State University that opted not to vote in 2014.
“I just don’t like politics. I feel like they bicker too much. I don’t feel like much is being accomplished in Washington,” Gilbreath said. “I don’t feel like I’m an educated voter.”
Part of the problem is that younger voters are not thinking about politics on a regular basis, Larimer said.
Other potential barriers for the youth vote exist. Voter ID laws could disenfranchise young voters and minorities depending on their strictness in any given state, which again, goes back to the importance of a sense of civic duty.
“You can’t really underestimate how much of an impact this different sense of duty and responsibility has on young people,” Matto said. “Even when the process is cumbersome or difficult, people with a high sense of civic duty or a sense that it’s their responsibility to participate in the process, they’re going to find a way to vote.”
Matto pointed out that states making efforts to ease the registration and Election Day processes, such as allowing same-day registration, are enjoying a higher turnout not only in young voters, but overall.
Larimer, however, said even in states with less rigorous registration laws, there has not always been a significant difference in voter turnout.
In 2008, Iowa took up Election Day registration, which is supposed to make voting more accessible.
Registering on Election Day is not necessarily recommended, however. Story County, home of Iowa State University, has a youth vote that is regularly moving and changing address. Story County Auditor Lucy Martin said young voters should try to ease the process by registering ahead of time and updating their registration each time they move.
“It’s just something to keep in mind with any highly mobile population,” Martin said. She admitted, however, that it is not necessarily always made the highest priority. “I know it’s hard to think of elections when you’re not in the midst of one.”
Further, Martin said that the burden of voting, no matter the registration laws, is still on the voters themselves.
“I can’t compel someone to vote,” Martin said.
According to CIRCLE, in 2010, the Iowa youth voter turnout for those between ages 18 and 29 was 28.8 percent. In 2008 and 2012, presidential election years, the turnout rates for the same group of voters were 63.4 percent and 57.1 percent, respectively. The 57.1 percent from 2012 made Iowa one of the states with the largest youth turnout, behind Mississippi, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
But those numbers still are not that high, just higher. In Iowa’s instance, for example, Larimer said this could have to do with the state’s culture; it is known for its politics.
Researchers agree that there is likely to be at least an uptick in voter turnout as today’s young voters get older and start buying homes, running businesses, etc.
“Obviously if you go a little bit older, your priorities change. So right now there’s a lot of the youth vote focusing on kind of how we’re going to pay down our student debt, how we’re going to find jobs, how we’re going to kind of… progress throughout life,” said Jonathon Laudner, president of the ISU College Republicans.
In Story County, where students like Laudner, Kustritz, Wieditz and Gilbreath attend school, voter turnout for the 2014 elections for those between the ages of 18 and 24 was 29.11 percent, Martin said.
Going into the 2016 elections, the number of young voters is expected to increase compared to 2014, but that is not surprising. Historically, there has always been a better turnout for presidential elections throughout the entire electorate. Compared to 2012, researchers are still not sure what the 2016 elections will bring out numbers-wise for young voters.
The evidence, however, suggests the youth vote turnout at any given time will probably not change much.
“The jury is still out on whether or not low rates of turnout among millenials is just a function of just their state in life… or whether or not it’s something unique to their generation,” Matto said.
Perhaps 2016 will provide more answers.