Want more youth voting? We know what works.

By Jane Eisner


From the moment new students at the University of Pennsylvania arrive on the Philadelphia campus, they are encouraged to do something only half of all young Americans do: vote.

University administrators place voter registration forms in orientation packets and set up tables on leafy Locust Walk. The school even brings voting equipment to the urban grounds so that students can become familiar with what can be an intimidating process.

A student-led group, Penn Leads the Vote, hosts events throughout each semester. The group employs what Cory Bowman, associate director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, calls “reverse door knocking,” partnering with existing networks to help students navigate the maze of deadlines and demands that are an unfortunate feature of American voting.

The effort works. According to data compiled by the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), Penn’s registration rate was similar in 2016 and 2020, but the percentage of registered students who voted on election day rose from 79.3% to 88.6%. And the overall voting rate increased from 67.5% to 76.7%, which was well above the national average of about 50%.



The lesson: America’s embarrassingly low youth voter turnout can be fixed – if the country genuinely wants to fix it.

After the lengthy and messy struggle to extend the franchise to 18-year-olds, who were old enough to be drafted but not old enough to vote, passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971 was expected to herald a surge in youth civic participation. In fact, turnout in the 1972 presidential race, at 55.4%, remains the apex for voters aged 18 to 29.

Twenty years ago, in my book Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy, I argued that several factors caused this dismaying trend: gerrymandered districts that gave voters little choice and incentive to cast a ballot; politicians and candidates who ignored young voters’ issues; a cumbersome and unwelcoming registration and voting process that especially disadvantaged first-time voters; and the decline in civic education leading to an antipathy toward government.

The most effective responses were both short-term (make voting easier, enlist peers to encourage participation) long-term (strengthen civic education) and very long term (end gerrymandering and creative more competitive races). Enduring solutions required voting to become a habit, a civic ritual embedded in the American ethos. I even promoted the idea of turning every young person’s First Vote into a communal celebration.

The last two decades have witnessed cataclysmic changes to the nation’s politics and civic behavior. During that time, youth voter turnout has zig-zagged from below 40% to 55% in 2020, still not surpassing the 1972 record but drawing close. Voting has become easier in some states, more restrictive in others. Campaigns have moved online, while social media and the misinformation it too often disseminates have become serious factors in the voting ecosystem. The youth electorate is far more diverse, and the nation far more polarized.

Yet despite all these factors, the central message – now borne out by years of research, analysis, and experience – is largely consistent: Young people vote when their peers encourage them to vote, and when it’s easy to vote.

Turnout can be spurred by a galvanizing candidate (Barack Obama, especially in 2008) and occasionally a hot-button issue (abortion in the 2022 midterms). One surprising finding is that civic education in high school does not appear to have a noticeable impact on voting in adulthood.  Instead, it is having the opportunity to vote that seems most impactful.

And it is the United States’ highly decentralized, confusing, gerrymandered, often restrictive hodge-podge system of conducting elections that most hinders this rite of citizenship, especially among the youngest voters. The problem of youth voting can be seen as a metaphor for what prevents a more robust participation in our democracy. To truly address the challenge of getting more young people to vote, and therefore become lifelong voters, we must dismantle the many barriers and disincentives that affect the voting population in general and disadvantage its newest members in particular. The positive trends that have emerged in the last two decades show the way.

Why American youth don’t vote

The fact that younger citizens vote at lower rates than their elders is not a feature only of American democracy. Many similar nations experience this trend, but not to the same degree. Direct comparisons are difficult because voting systems are so varied, but one interesting perspective can be derived from the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Survey in 2022, which polled citizens in 19 countries.

Citizens in eight of those nations showed a significant age gap when asked whether voting in elections is very important to be a good member in society; the United States showed the largest gap between younger and older voters. While 82% of those over 50 years old agreed with that statement, only 47% of the 18-to-29-year electorate concurred. That 35% gap was more than double the second-place nation, Hungary, and more than four times as large as the gap in France.

It's not just the yawning gap that sets the U.S. apart. It’s the numbers themselves. In all the other nations polled – Canada, Spain, Australia, U.K., and Germany included – more than 60% of younger voters said they believed in the civic value of casting a ballot. Canada’s high of 76% is nearly 30 percentage points above the rate among Americans.



It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Historically, when other formally disenfranchised groups were given the right to vote – such as women and Black people – their participation levels increased over time. For decades after 1972, the trend for youth voting went in reverse. Now the picture is more varied, a civic landscape punctuated by hills and valleys, depending in large measure on the opportunities or restrictions in each state.

Nationally, the recent surge in youth voting is well documented. In the 2014 midterms, only 13% of that cohort went to the polls, according to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE,  a nonpartisan, independent research organization based at Tufts University that is focused on youth civic engagement in the U.S. Turnout was 28.2% in 2018 and slipped some in 2022 to 23%. Even so, all but one of the 40 states for which CIRCLE has data had higher turnout in 2022 than in 2014.

The uptick over the course of two presidential campaigns was more dramatic: 38% turnout in 2016, 50% in 2020. But beneath those national trends is a notable discrepancy among states. For example, in 2016, Texas had the lowest youth turnout rate at 28% while Minnesota had the highest at 57%. There was even a wider gap in 2020 between lowest (32% in South Dakota) and highest (67% in New Jersey.)

Why? CIRCLE’s analyses suggest that, along with issues and electoral competitiveness, election laws may be playing a central role in shaping whether youth cast a ballot in national elections.

Consider, first, registration requirements. If you are a first-time voter, you must register, an additional step that doesn’t apply to more established voters. If you have moved from jurisdiction to jurisdiction – as so many young people do, for education, jobs, whatever – you must register again. So while registration policies are not necessarily targeted to the young, they disproportionately affect newer voters.

States with easier, more inviting registration policies often have higher youth voter turnout. A CIRCLE analysis found that turnout was 9% higher in counties that allow young people to preregister to vote before they turn 18. CIRCLE also found that, when controlling for demographic factors, youth voter registration was 10% higher in 2020 in states with online voter registration.

Makes sense. In Michigan, for example, you can register online; you can even register at the polls on Election Day. In 2019, the state also implemented automatic voter registration. And in 2022, 37% of Michiganders aged 18 to 29 voted, the highest percentage  in any of the 40 states in CIRCLE’s analysis. Michigan also saw a surge in registrations from one midterm cycle to the next.

Political scientists are quick to note that correlation is not causation. There were “extraordinary factors at play” in Michigan, Brady Baybeck of Wayne State University, said in an email – not the least of which was a proposal to put abortion rights into the state constitution, which drew many young people to the polls and was approved handily.

Still, the data show that in many states with onerous registration requirements, young people simply don’t vote. Tennessee, Alabama and Oklahoma do not have same-day, automatic, or pre-registration, and their youth voting rates in the 2022 midterm were abysmal – as low as 13% in Tennessee, and not much higher in the other states.

Registration processes can also be confusing for college and university students living on a residential campus away from home. Where do they register – on campus? Or in their home state? If they are in a different state, what is the process to vote absentee? Or must they travel home on Election Day?

Beyond registration, voting rules vary dramatically from state to state. The exigencies of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many states to loosen those rules, smoothing the path toward casting a ballot by allowing voting at home, and dropping requirements to defend absentee balloting. Some of those states never turned back. Eight states automatically sent mail-in ballots to all registered voters in 2022, and many of them boasted high youth turnout as a result. Using data from the National Vote at Home Institute, we can see those states with the most generous policies in 2022 had youth voter turnout at or above the national average, while turnout in the states with the most restrictive policies were far below that average.

Another restriction expressly targets younger voters – the growing number of states which require some sort of voter identification but won’t accept student ID cards, even from public institutions. According to the Campus Vote Project, 12 states prohibit using student IDs. Arizona theoretically permits student IDs, but the ID cards issued by the state’s public universities don’t satisfy its many requirements.

In many of these states, permits to carry concealed weapons are acceptable. Proof of attendance at a public university is not. Another form of acceptable identification, a state drivers’ license, also tends to exclude young voters, especially those from minority groups. As Gabriel Sanchez, a senior fellow at Brookings and an expert on Latino voters, noted in an interview, many younger Latinos have “no interest in driving a vehicle” and therefore have no reason to get a license.

Perhaps no surprise, then, that youth turnout in Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas was below the national average in the 2022 midterms. (Data is not available for South Carolina and North Dakota.) Indeed, CIRCLE found that 9% of young non-voters in 2020 cited not having the proper ID for the reason they did not cast a ballot.



Beyond the swell of voting laws, the last 20 years has seen the explosion of social media, a force that can enhance communication and civic engagement and also wreak havoc for the digital natives that make up the young electorate because of the misinformation and disinformation that is awash online. Sanchez says that this is a particular concern for Latino voters – a population that skews young and has more fluid political leanings.

The median age of Latino eligible voters is 39 years old, nine years younger than the national average, and their numbers are growing rapidly, especially in battleground states such as Arizona and Nevada. As a relatively new segment of the electorate, their allegiances are not as fixed as other minority groups, and while they seem to largely support Democratic issues, they are not as wedded to the Democratic party. This leaves them even more vulnerable to the misinformation that floods the internet, especially because efforts to monitor it are mostly geared to English postings and not ones in Spanish.

“It’s a big, scary monster that unfortunately will grow,” warns Sanchez.

Trying what works

America’s college students, while only 38% of the 18 to 29 year old population (in 2021), are a fascinating case study in how a campus can be a robust incubator of active citizenship, offering the two essentials to prompt youth voting: opportunity and peer encouragement.

The campus is also an inviting setting for serious research. Through its massive data bank of 1,200 colleges and universities, NSLVE has charted turnout every two years since 2012 (although the latest report goes no further than 2020). It calculated that voter turnout among college students averaged 52% in 2016 and soared to 66% in 2020 – nearly on par with overall national turnout that year of 67%. Almost all the campuses included in the NSLVE analysis boasted increases in voting; most impressive were the rates at women’s colleges, at 76%.

Voting rates overall are positively tied to income and education, which partly explains these numbers. But a campus also makes an easy target audience for mobilization efforts. Consider the results of a 2006 study of more than 1,026 classrooms, conducted by Elizabeth Bennion of Indiana University and David Nickerson of Temple University. They found that classroom-based registration drives increased registration by 6% and voting by 2.6%. Face-to-face presentations work. Comparatively, remote email messages, the researchers found, do not.

A review of the literature published last November by Bennion and Melissa Michelson of Menlo College said it directly: “the most effective way to mobilize new voters is to catch their attention and to personalize the invitation to vote in ways that make them feel as if their vote is significant – as if they are more than a number and somebody cares if they, as individuals, go to the polls.” Voting, they asserted, “is strongly shaped by one’s social environment.”

College campuses are uniquely positioned to create that social environment. I saw this firsthand at the University of Pennsylvania. I was an adjunct professor when I wrote my book on youth voting, and my research contributed to the establishment of Penn Leads the Vote, which trained students to encourage their peers – on athletic teams, in religious groups, in affinity housing – to register and vote. PLTV was reconstituted in 2013 and is now based at the Netter Center, with the same focus and an even more robust array of outreach.

Even the most creative and intensive voter mobilization efforts, however, do not confront the underlying structural reasons why so many Americans, and especially so many younger Americans, find no purchase in voting.

Elections have become even more non-competitive in the last 50 years. In 2020, 70% of elections were essentially determined in the primaries. decided by a sliver of primary voters who tend to occupy the extremes. The Electoral College sweepstakes anoints a few states as essential, and all the others as foregone conclusions. Even the fact that Election Day is not a federal holiday suppresses turnout. (Here’s an easy fix: Combine it with Veterans Day. What better way to celebrate freedom? And it doesn’t require a constitutional amendment.)

The upswing of youth voting in the last few electoral cycles is a hopeful sign on the road to making America a more participatory and fairer democracy. Continuing the trend demands persistence, passion and patience. The path to securing the 26th Amendment was a long one. The bill to lower the voting age to 18 was first introduced in Congress during World War II and was introduced 10 more times before it finally was enacted. Social change takes time and commitment. The overall strategies to encourage more young people to vote are sensible, well-documented and well-known. The question is whether we, as a nation, genuinely want to welcome newer voters into the electorate.


Jane Eisner, former director of academic affairs at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy (2004). This essay was made possible by a grant from the A-Mark Foundation, which funds nonpartisan journalism and research on critical social issues.

Shorter versions of this piece have been printed in Zócalo Public Square, The Boston Globe, and San Francisco Chronicle, with reprints by MSN and Times of San Diego.

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