High School Voter Registration Week is approaching!
When it comes to young people turning out to vote, there is bad news, good news, and more good news.
The bad news is that ever since young adults 18-20 won the right to vote beginning with the 1972 presidential election, they voted in lower percentages than all other age groups. Moreover, voter registration for the past two years has been hindered by the pandemic – meaning fewer potential first-time voters may have been registered in 2021 and 2022. And it hasn’t helped that some states have erected roadblocks that make it harder to register, and even harder to vote once you are registered.
But there is a lot of good news to report. First, there is new evidence that in recent elections, voter turnout among young people is significantly on the rise. And we are now learning that among young people who are actually registered, turnout barely lags behind turnout among older Americans.
Finally, there is even better news: A broad coalition of more than 70 groups, including the Coalition on Human Needs, has come together to join the Ready To Vote Coalition. This coalition, organized by The Civics Center, is sponsoring High School Voter Registration Week, which will take place September 19-23.
Besides CHN, groups participating in the Ready to Vote Coalition include the American Constitution Society, Democracy Matters, Generation Vote, the League of Women Voters, Main Street Alliance, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Vote.org, and the Women’s March Foundation.
The coalition is recruiting students and educators to participate in High School Voter Registration Week by attending a one-hour zoom workshop on how to organize a nonpartisan voter registration drive in their high school. Participants are asked to sign up their registration drive with the Civics Center; they then are given a “democracy in a box” toolkit of supplies for their drive.
For many years, a myth has endured that young people do not vote because of apathy about politics and current events. The Civics Center contends that the real culprit is a lack of access to registration materials and a failure by political campaigns to target young people, among other reasons. Many young people, when asked why they did not register to vote, respond by saying no one asked them to. (And, in some cases, studies have found impediments to voting, such as long lines at the polls, or not being able to take time off of work to go vote.)
“Low youth turnout is driven overwhelmingly by low youth voter registration,” The Civics Center writes in a blog post. “The numbers today are alarming. From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Madison to Milwaukee, Cleveland to Columbus, Tucson to Phoenix, fewer than 25 percent of 18-year-olds are registered to vote. If they are not registered, they can’t turn out. It’s as simple as that. If they do register, they have the power to make the difference in states across the country that will have important and close elections in November.”
Once young people actually are registered to vote, they are highly likely to turn out. In the 2020 presidential election, 86 percent of registered youth 18-29 turned out to vote in the presidential election; in 2018, the last comparable mid-term election, 66 percent of registered youth turned out.
According to a Tufts University study, overall, 50 percent of all young people ages 18-29 (registered or unregistered) voted in the 2020 presidential election – a significant increase over 2016, when 39 percent voted. The study found that laws in individual states had a lot to do with turnout rates – some states made it easier to register to vote and to actually vote; some states made it more difficult.
The states with the highest turnout rates were New Jersey (67 percent), Minnesota (65 percent), Colorado (64 percent), and Maine (61 percent). The states with the lowest turnout rates were South Dakota (32 percent), Oklahoma (34 percent), Arkansas (35 percent), and New Mexico (39 percent).
The same study showed that overall turnout among all 18- and 19-year-olds in the 2020 presidential election (registered or un-registered) was 46 percent – not far behind the larger 18-29 demographic.
According to The Civics Center, about 4 million people turn 18 every year in the U.S. Of those, about 1 million are high school students. The import of these potential voters is clear when you look back at the 2020 election.
In ten highly competitive states – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin – 3.1 million potential voters turned or will have turned 18 between the beginning of 2021 and Election Day 2022, which is November 8. The combined margin of victory in the presidential race in those ten states was just under 1.9 million votes.
Put another way: in three razor-thin states, it can plausibly be argued that the youth vote can make a difference in close statewide races. In Arizona, where the margin of victory in the 2020 presidential race was 10,457 votes, 180,000 potential voters have or will have turned 18 between the beginning of 2021 and Election Day 2022. In Georgia, those numbers are 11,779 and 283,000; in Wisconsin, they are 20,682 and 148,000.
“Our plan to increase youth voter registration is to give students the power and tools to organize and register themselves,” The Civics Center writes. “We help them learn how to organize and how to connect the stories of their lives with larger public issues. This is a critical ingredient that motivates students to engage in elections and to engage their communities.”