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Getting to the bottom of the missing youth vote

Professors examine barriers that youth face, changes that may make them more likely to vote

Young Americans vote at half the rate of older Americans, a gap that is twice as large as in other advanced democracies. In their new book “Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Actions,” University of Virginia professor John B. Holbein and Duke University professor D. Sunshine Hillygus examine both the reasons for low youth turnout and the changes that may make them more likely to vote. Holbein spoke with CQ Roll Call’s David Jordan. An edited transcript:

Q. What makes it difficult for a young person to vote in the U.S.?

A. The U.S. is unique in some of the barriers that it places on young people in terms of how, when and where they can cast their ballot. The United States has some of the most restrictive voter registration rules in the world, and we show in our book that in states where those rules have been relaxed, rates of youth voter participation increased.

Q. Is this low youth turnout something that has remained consistent across generations?

A. It has always been the case that as an individual ages they are more likely to vote, but it looks like millennials are aging into voting at a lower and slower rate than previous generations.

[Young voters don’t like being called millennials, or too much Trump-bashing]

Q. How does this affect lawmaking?

A. The two case studies that I most frequently turn to show a total lack of willingness to even discuss or touch topics like Social Security. The reverence and protection those types of policies are given I think is in part a reflection of the fact that the people elected officials are held accountable by are beneficiaries of those programs. More broadly, if we live in a world where young people voted in higher rates we might see a very different discussion of policies that are on the table for gun control or climate change.

Q. What changes could address these issues?

A. One of the big ones that has a positive impact on whether or not young people turn out to vote is Election Day registration, which allows young people who may have forgotten or may have missed a voter registration deadline for other reasons to show up on Election Day and cast a ballot. Pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds also appears to have positive effects.

Q. What can be done in the long term to create more engaged citizens?

A. The current state of affairs is pretty dreary when it comes to civics. Civics education, however, has a real opportunity to turn things around by focusing on contemporary political issues, by helping equip students with the skills they need to follow through on their intentions to vote and providing them with opportunities to register.

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