As Democrats consider how to claw their way back to power, or at lease relevance, they have to take a hard look at an untapped resource: young people. Millennials, who tend to be more progressive than their forebears, make up almost a third of the voting population, but in the 2016 election only half of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast their ballot.
That represents a problem, but also an incredible opportunity. Though the conventional wisdom is that young people don’t vote, when they do it can swing the fate of entire nations. In the most recent UK election, 66 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted, helping the Labour Party, led by the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, win a surprising number of seats. That sort of result would undoubtedly be great news for the Democrats. As the party contemplates how to win back voters who flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, it should also focus on how to win the support of young people who have never voted.
But there are lots of reasons young people don’t vote—including a concerted effort on the right to make it harder for them (and people of color, among other populations) to cast ballots. To better understand how Democrats could get young people to the polls, and the problems standing in their way, I called up my friend Sean McElwee, a policy analyst at Demos, a left-leaning think tank. Here’s what we talked about:
VICE: Is it true that young people don’t vote in the US? Why not?
Sean McElwee: Across OECD countries, there are no countries in which younger people regularly turn out at a higher rate than older folks. However, the United States is uniquely high in the age gap, in the top three nations. The majority of Americans do not vote in the first presidential election in which they’re eligible. In the 2014 midterm election, there was around 17 percent turnout from 18–24-year-olds.
What are the causes of that? There are both structural factors and campaign factors. In the United States, the biggest structural factor is voter registration. The way that I like to illustrate this is that the registration rate for individuals 18-24 is lower than the turnout rate for older people. Even if everyone who’s registered to vote who’s 18-24 turned out, they’d still have a lower turnout rate than older folks. What we should do to improve registration? If you go to the DMV when you’re 16, you should be added to a list so that as soon as you turn 18 you’re going to be added to the registration rolls. The reason that makes a lot of sense is if you are 16, you’re probably not going to get your license renewed until a couple years after you turn 18. So, that’s one thing we can do: We can make it automatic. Anytime you go to the DMV, you’re registered to vote.
Another thing we can do is get rid of the registration barriers with same-day registration, which would allow you to vote at your polling location. Most states have registration deadlines that are four or so weeks outside the election. Four weeks is a long time away from the election, and within the four-week deadline is when a lot of people are like, Oh, there’s an election coming up, I should start making plans.
Do the Democrats underestimate the structural suppression imbedded in our voting system?
In very blue states like New York, you do not have any effort to push through same-day registration or automatic registration. Many blue states don’t have automatic voter registration. One blue state in particular, Delaware, still disenfranchises some felons for life. Democrats have rightfully taken aim at [opposing] new mechanisms of suppression that have come up in recent years, things like voter ID.
Long term, there haven’t been concerted efforts to remove registration barriers, even at times like after the 2008 elections, when Democrats had a lot of power at the state level and could’ve invested energy in automatic voter registration or increasing the implementation of already existing laws. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), passed in 1993, requires the DMV and government offices that provide public assistance to give people the opportunity to register to vote. What Demos has found and what other research has found is that these laws are enforced differently, depending on the state. Partisanship plays some role in that, but it’s also that states just haven’t taken the mantle up to make it easy and accessible to register at the DMV. That’s a huge problem because one-fourth of people are registered at the DMV.
How do you think Democrats can mobilize young people?
An example that comes to mind is you had Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a music festival. How often do you hear of that? Politicians don’t invest a lot of time in targeting young people with messages. Parties don’t invest a lot of time in trying to run young candidates, which is shown to increase youth turnout.
It’s worth noting that when campaigns [choose which voters to target], they buy the voter file from the secretary of state, [which doesn’t include] people who are not registered to vote. Lots of young people are essentially invisible to campaigns because they’re not registered to vote, meaning they’re not in any of these databases, and campaigns don’t make a lot of effort to target them.
“There’s far too much effort by policy makers to design legislation that benefits middle-age folks and older folks who are more likely to turn out to vote.”
Aside from automatic voter registration, are there any other reforms that Democrats could focus on to increase voter turnout generally? Like felon disenfranchisement?
Reforms that focus on registration, same-day, pre-registration, or automatic, are the ones that I like to focus on. Felon disenfranchisement is also very key; those are the top priorities from my perspective. There are lots of other convenience voting reforms that have been discussed, things like expanding early voting. Those are all important and great—what they tend to do is make it easier for people who were planning to vote to vote. They don’t do as much to reduce the deep stratification of the electorate. I think all those reforms are very useful but should be complemented with easier registration.
Is streamlining the voter registration process the solution to increasing young voter turnout?
Yes, but there are factors that are even more deeply structural, like how many young people live in cities where their vote doesn’t matter as much because of gerrymandering and the Electoral College. We should really think of these things as deeply undemocratic barriers to voting. There’s far too much effort by policy makers to design legislation that benefits middle-age folks and older folks who are more likely to turn out to vote, and that further depresses the interest of young people in politics.
We need to both change the structural factors, but we also need to have politicians who take seriously the next generation and take seriously their concerns, which gets ignored in presidential elections. If you have presidential debates where you’re talking about the national debt but not global warming, these debates inherently alienate young people who don’t really care that much about the national debt, but do care quite a bit about climate change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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