Have you ever wondered why young people just don’t vote? Maybe it’s not them, it’s you.

This entry was contributed by on May 3rd, 2019 at 9:27 am and is filed under .
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I’m glad to introduce Jake Gellar-Goad, who is a Program Specialist and a founding member of the Wake Forest University nonpartisan voter engagement committee Deacs Decide.

I was participating in a voting rights conference a number of years back where I heard from the Mayor of Takoma Park, Maryland about how their city experimented with letting young people under 18 cast votes in local elections. And guess what? It worked!

Now sure, some of it may have been the novelty of letting young people vote, but from what I heard, the young voters were participating at higher rates of voting than most other age groups of voters. And when you think about our current system—how we wait until people turn 18 and often leave the communities they’re connected with to start college or work—the Takoma Park experiment kind of makes sense. People vote when they feel connected to the communities they are voting in. And that tells me there are two important solutions to getting young people to vote.

One is getting them started young, so they build the habit while they’re still in the communities they consider home. North Carolina is not a strong home-rule state, so it makes it a little harder for our municipalities to follow in the footsteps of our friends in Takoma Park. We are fortunate, however, to have pre-registration in North Carolina that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to register early, so they’re automatically ready to go once they turn 18.

From personal experience, I can share that nowhere else in this great state can you register more people in an hour than at a North Carolina high school, where people are aging into being eligible to vote. Okay, citizenship ceremonies are pretty great for it, too, when you have a large group of people first becoming eligible. But otherwise, you’ll never beat that by working a table outside a sporting event, community picnic, or big-box store. And I should know. I worked a lot of tables last year, and registered over 100 voters. In fact, I worked for 5 years at a voter engagement nonprofit Democracy North Carolina and never beat the kind of numbers I got in high schools just by simply passing out a few “I registered to vote today” stickers!

The other solution is getting young people connected to the communities they are in now. In North Carolina, college students have the option of registering and voting where they came from or where they are now. I’m a fan of encouraging students to be present in and invest in where they are now and vote at their college homes.

I believe universities should strive to have guest speakers, film screenings, and candidate meet-and-greets to educate and connect students to the towns they live in. And not to shy away from the topics young people are engaging with: racial justice, immigration, queer justice, gun violence, climate change, and so on. That’s why I was so excited to be one of the founding members of Deacs Decide, a nonpartisan voter engagement effort at Wake Forest University, doing just that in the 2018 election.

Those efforts are being complicated by the implementation of a new voter ID requirement. The ID deadline came up so quickly that many colleges and universities were unable to qualify, including Wake Forest. One of the most onerous requirements in this law is making universities shift from having photos provided by the students to having universities take those photos themselves, and having that in an ID that is ready to go as soon as the student enters campus and needs to start using the ID for meal swipes, building access, and the myriad of other uses ID cards have these days.

For the past two years, I have worked as Program Specialist at Wake Forest in an office that supports many first-generation students, students of color, rural students, and low-income college students, and I am particularly concerned about their access to qualifying IDs. While there are methods out there to get qualifying IDs, that’s just one more hurdle that these students have to face that other students can take for granted.

I call on university administrators and leaders to work on helping their students get qualifying IDs, and at the same time to lobby the state legislature for more accessible student voter ID rules such as those found in House Bill 646.

So when I say, “maybe the problem isn’t them, maybe it’s you,” I mean all of us who aren’t young voters any more. When the “Royal We” set the terms for young people voting as something they have to do after they change the communities they’ve known, require IDs they may not have easy access to, and then don’t put early voting sites on many college campuses, it’s no wonder why young people just don’t vote. But when we set the conditions right, we do see higher youth voter turnout. I would love to hear in the comments about successful youth voter engagement in the communities and campuses you’re connected to.

11 Responses to “Have you ever wondered why young people just don’t vote? Maybe it’s not them, it’s you.”

  1. David

    I think the author does well to point out how the voting age of 18 so often coincides with life changes that are not conducive to getting new voters engaged in the process, and to be honest this observation seems obvious yet I know I certainly haven’t thought of it much (not since I was 18 anyway). Local/community politics need more attention, for sure, and having helped register voters myself I know how disengaged the average passerby can be. Glad to see discussions like this reach a wider audience!

    • John Stephens

      David – do you have other ideas for strategies to help new/younger voters?

  2. Terri Wilmoth

    Your take on voter registration seems to be exactly right. We need an educated voting public to be our best selves as a country and as a world leader.

  3. Interesting point that I hadn’t considered regarding kids bring more engaged because it’s where they grew up vs. just having moved to. Wonder if there’s stats on votes cast by years of local residency.

  4. Caitlin

    Happy to see the point about college-bound voters having to choose between hometown and new community voter registration. I experienced it myself on a pretty small scale when I moved between counties in NC for college shortly after turning 18. I had a lot of classmates at UNC from out of state who didn’t vote in local elections because they either didn’t think of NC as their true home or they thought it would be somehow unethical or dishonest to do so since they hadn’t lived here for long. I would love to see more efforts to inform these “out of state” students about their eligibility (and responsibility!) to vote locally. Thanks to the author for making these excellent points.

  5. Politicians shouldn’t be trying to choose their voters instead of voters choosing them!

  6. David W

    Do you think the impediments to young people voting (like the university ID laws) were created intentionally by legislators to make it harder for young people (and others) to vote?

  7. Justin

    Great stuff here! Do you have any statistics on how often registering a young voter results in an every-election voter? How predictive is age of registration on voting frequency?

    • Jake Gellar-Goad

      Hat tip to Peter Levine for sharing this piece (link below). It seems to suggest once you start voting you tend to keep voting. And that the socioeconomic status of your parents matters a lot early on, but that over time the class-based difference tends to diminish.


      Another question is what is meant by every-election voter? In my experience first-time voters tend to go for the bigger elections, and it takes a little extra effort to build the habit of not being a drop-off voter at midterms and for local elections and runoff elections.

      What I have seen volunteering outside of polling places is that removing barriers matters. I have seen more students voting when early voting is on campus. Or at least when some level of intentional and well-advertised transportation has been made available. And I think anything we can do to reduce how much of a barrier requiring IDs to vote is by having universities bring their student IDs in compliance, the less this will harm the youth vote.

  8. Jake Gellar-Goad

    A friend recently reminded me, upon seeing this piece, about the need for universities aiming to come into compliance with this voter ID requirement to be sure that their student IDs don’t remove the ability of trans students to have the names they use reflected on their IDs.

    Indeed, back in my Democracy North Carolina days we used to partner with Equality North Carolina and the ACLU of North Carolina to put out resources and pieces around the consequences of strict voter ID requirements for trans voters. Here’s an example:

  9. Steve Harrison

    We need to (vastly) increase our outreach to youth on voting, high school juniors and seniors in particular. Many at that age are hungry for adult status of any kind, and desperate to start making their own decisions. I volunteered at the NCDP booth last year, and was surprised (and pleased) by how many young people came by to talk, even as young as 14-15. If we can energize those young people, get them to register and vote, I believe a lot of the problems we’re facing now will disappear.


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