By Zahra Abadin | UC Berkeley
2014 had the lowest youth voter turnout in 40 years. Less than a quarter of eligible 18-29 year olds voted, even lower than the abysmal 2010 turnout. Ratified in 1971, the 26th amendment lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, leading to the largest youth voter turnout in the 1972 election. Voting is both a right and a privilege. Not everyone who is affected by the laws and policies which govern this country are able to voice their opinion. So why is it that the youth who have the ability to vote, don’t?
Voters tend to be institutionally disenfranchised due to voter ID laws, lack of access, and confusion about voting by mail policies. Although California does not require a state issued ID to vote, many other states do. By requiring ID, states are essentially creating second class citizens: those who do not have a state issued ID cannot exercise their right to vote, something which is guaranteed to every citizen. These laws are often racist in their enforcement, disenfranchising minorities and people of color. IDs are expensive and a voter needs to travel during work hours to an office to acquire one. For example, in Texas, there are few driver license offices and almost a third of the counties don’t have an office,making it a financial burden affecting people of color, primarily Latinx & Chicanx folks who work. To try and offset the financial costs and adjust for those who work, laws were created that would require offices to stay open later on a couple days of the week and reimburse travel costs. However, these laws were killed by the Texas legislature. The justification for passing voter ID laws, such as the ones in Texas, has been that they protect against voter fraud. Yet, in the past decade, there have been only 100 federal cases and 50 state convictions for voter fraud in a population of 25 million. With the voter ID laws disproportionately discriminating against people of color, and in Texas, Latinx & Chicanx folks, it is clear that this institutional disenfranchisement is affecting voter turnout.
Even if voters in states that require ID manage to obtain one, they often contend with accessibility issues. A lack of access does not only refer to location, but time. Youth voters who work full time or are in school have days filled with classes, work, and other responsibilities. Since polling places are often farther away from school and work , going to vote between classes or on breaks is not an option, further disenfranchising voters. Election results are often called early in the evening; youth voters who have the time and ability to vote later in the evening thereby have no incentive to do so. By the time they can get to the polls, many high-interest races have already been called.
Voters who cannot vote on elections day due to lack of accessibility or other issues have an option to vote by mail, receiving their ballot early to ensure that their vote will be counted. In California, voting by mail is a popular option, especially amongst students. Students at college are often registered to vote in their hometown, and since many decide not to re-register, they mail in their ballot. However, the California Civic Engagement Project (CCEP) at UC Davis reported that young California voters casted a disproportionately large share of rejected ballots due to the envelope not being signed, signature not matching the DMV signature, and/or having the ballot being mailed in late without enough postage or a postmark stamped date. Voting by mail is unnecessarily tedious and confusing, causing institutional disenfranchisement of youth voters.
However, some young voters are making a personal choice not to vote. Youth voters believe that they have no stake in the elections. Politicians don’t create legislation or action for them, so why should they vote? This feeling is only intensified by voters who feel that their votes won’t count, particularly in a state that has historically voted for a particular party, e.g.California goes Democrat, Texas goes Republican. The feeling that a vote doesn’t count is only heightened by the electoral college system. This fierce belief of having no stake is fed through the social media bubble. Social media has become the new medium for campaigns; candidates use social media to relate to voters and spread their message. However, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become a feedback loop, reinforcing and validating a point of view instead of broadening the conversation. Youth voters who use social media (so, most of them) have a distorted view of a candidate or movement due to the inflated hype that surrounds them, which is only strengthened by the social media bubble. Candidates and movements that do not meet the inflated expectations leave disenfranchised voters with little to no faith in the political system .
Fear not, there are solutions.
Voters must be engaged in order to vote; they need to feel like they have a stake in the election, like their vote matters. By organizing through existing social and academic networks, voters can be invested organically. For example, tabling at school orientations, emails by deans and student leaders, visibility with posters and banners around school, and mobilizing students through registration drives are all effective ways of engaging student voters. In order to galvanize youth voters to actually vote, we must make voting a family and community event. Someone is more likely to do something if their peers are doing it (FOMO is real), and the same goes for voting. Holding registration drives and having accessible polling locations near work and school places, while eliminating disenfranchising policies like Voter ID laws and confusing Vote By Mail processes, makes it easier for folks who are at school or work all day. Accessibility also includes making sure that information is visible and communicated clearly. Educating voters needs to be a priority. When voters understand what they are voting on, and how this will impact them and their communities, they are more likely to show up and vote. Nonpartisan education about politics, candidates, ballots, statewide measures, registering to vote, voter registration laws, and the impact of voting on ALL levels, especially the local level, where the impact of a vote affects an individual the most, needs to be institutionalized.
The reasons for youth voter disenfranchisement, both institutional and personal, are valid and substantiated. Until youth voters recognize the right and privilege of voting, we as a community suffer from the loss of voices of a whole generation. The solutions are available, but it takes effort and commitment to engage youth voters and make them a part of our political voice. For folks who can, register to vote. Encourage others to register to vote. And on election day, go vote.
Zahra Abadin is a third-year student at UC Berkeley. She loves coffee, international policy, and talking in third person.