In the long shadow of the January 6th insurrection, Americans remain rightfully concerned about the state of our democracy and about our ability to preserve the sacred promise of every citizen’s right to vote. Many hear alarm bells as state legislatures — and even local election officials — take action to restrict access to the polls, prompting battles in the courts and bitter partisan rhetoric. The Brennan Center for Justice has tracked 34 new laws in 19 states and more than 150 bills pending in state legislatures that it describes as “restrictive voting legislation.”
We worry about what this all means for one group in particular: our youngest voters. Young people ages 18-29 turned out to vote at historic rates in 2018 and 2020, and their participation could be decisive in the upcoming midterms. But that participation is not a given. Voting laws and policies will influence whether young voters show up at the polls this year (and can vote when they do), and more broadly, may shape their ongoing trust in American democracy.
Young people’s confidence in our system of government and the future of our country is already a major concern. We see this moment as a call to action for state and local policymakers, election officials, organizations and campaigns.
Our research has found that most young people care about elections and want to participate. In 2020, 83% of young people said they believe they have the power to change the country. But most are newly eligible voters who may be unfamiliar with registration and voting processes. Historically underserved or marginalized young people disproportionately face barriers to voting. For example, we previously found that youth of color and youth without college experience were more likely to say they did not have transportation to the polls or could not stay in a long voting line. They were also twice as likely to say they had problems with voter ID.
We have already gotten a preview of how these barriers to voting could reduce voter participation in 2022. In last month’s Texas primaries, new restrictive ID laws for absentee voting resulted in a massive increase of rejected mail-in ballots and ballot applications. Policies that give poll watchers more access and authority to challenge voters can also make the process more time consuming and lengthen lines at the polls.
So what can be done?
First, we should radically lower the barrier to register and vote; and second, we should prioritize voter education every day and every year.
We can start by implementing same-day voter registration, which disproportionately increases the turnout of young people ages 18-24 in presidential elections, and offering young people an opportunity to “pre-register” as teens, which raises their likelihood to vote by nine points.
We should also let voters vote from home by sending them ballots outright. Our research estimates that half of young people cast ballots in 2020, but states that automatically mailed ballots to registered voters averaged higher youth voter turnout than states with more restrictive mail voting policies. These disparities have implications for racial justice and the representativeness of our electorate, as Black youth were more likely to live in states with restrictive vote-by-mail policies.
Now is the time to make these changes and invest in youth participation. Our Youth Electoral Significance Index ranks the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and governor races where young voters have the highest potential to decisively influence the results. Races in states like Washington, Colorado, California, Maryland and Nevada rank highly precisely because of their strong facilitative elections laws that make it easier to register and vote. Other races in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona, where youth may still have an impact despite a more difficult election policy landscape, present both a challenge and an opportunity to deepen how we prepare our youth to vote.
In many of these states and districts, young people of color are an especially large and influential part of the electorate. These youth often bear the brunt of restrictive policies that make it harder to register and vote, but their energy and action are also powerful assets to strengthen and expand democracy. In recent years, youth of color — especially young women of color — have been at the forefront of civic and electoral engagement, fighting for issues they care about in the streets and at the ballot box. We should build on their leadership and support their efforts with more resources and outreach to diverse communities.
This is not only an Election Day challenge, it’s a year-round opportunity. Campaign outreach must begin early and strive to reach all youth, not just those deemed likely voters. As our colleagues at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education have found, voting rates among college students are far higher than those of youth who have no college experience. There’s still work to do to improve civic learning and engagement on college campuses, but organizations must also work harder to reach youth outside of higher education.
For all young people, outreach must include detailed, practical information about deadlines and about how and where to register and vote, especially in light of the frequent changes to electoral processes during the pandemic. Nonprofits and community organizations can integrate voter engagement into their work to support registration. Educators must engage in nonpartisan teaching about elections and voting that demystifies the process and includes concrete opportunities to participate.
There is also a critical role for individuals. We know that young people rely mostly on family, friends, coworkers and other trusted connections to show them the ropes when it comes to voting. You can do that for a young person in your life, too.
Young people are both the future stewards of our democracy and a vital part of its present. As we strive to build and sustain a thriving and participatory, multiracial democracy in this country in 2022 and beyond, we also must build and sustain the structures and institutions to support it, for our young people, and for us all.
Dayna L. Cunningham is the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is the Newhouse Director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tisch College.