As of Friday, a record 100,000 16 to 17 year olds in California had signed up for pre-registration to vote. Pre-registration could increase the dismal voter turnout rates among young people in California — and other states should adopt a similar process.
Starting with advocacy following the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students have taken to the streets and social media to express their views. But it’s unclear whether new waves of student civic engagement will yield tangible political pressure at the polls.
For organizers, turning existing digital activism into a substantial political voice has been a challenge from the start. Some blame social media activism — or, as it’s referred to among skeptics, “slacktivism” — for providing young people an outlet to feel like they are engaging in advocacy without actually making concrete contributions.
Today’s distinctive combination of 21st century technology and political anxiety has introduced vast swaths of political engagement apps. The apps Votespotter and Stance make it easier to contact members of Congress, while Voter — known as “Tinder for politics” — allows users to swipe left or right to confer political preferences and shows users the political representatives with whom their views align best. We the People features more community discussion about political issues, and the app Congress organizes the bills going through the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Despite the onslaught of voter engagement apps, it’s hard to know whether increased voter engagement with our iPhones truly increases voter turnout rates at the ballot box. But maybe, in tandem with young voter initiatives like California’s pre-registration, these kinds of politically active forums can become real political engines for outreach and engagement.
Among all other age groups, 18 to 29-year-olds have consistently boasted the lowest voter turnout rates, which have significant consequences. According to the United States Election Project, in 2016, 43 percent of eligible 18 to 29-year-olds voted in the presidential election; compare that with 30 to 44-year-olds at 57 percent, 45 to 59-year-olds at 66 percent and voters over 60 at 71 percent. The policy implications of this voting pattern, which has persisted across the last 16 presidential and congressional elections, are obvious: Older voters’ interests are consistently overrepresented, while younger voters’ are consistently underrepresented.
Encouraging young people to register and to vote is not, as some cynical conservatives think, an effort to skew the vote Democratic. In fact, young voters cast more diverse votes than one might think — the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reports that in 2016, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received 55 percent of the vote among 18 to 29-year-olds, 37 percent supported now-President Donald Trump and 8 percent voted for third-party candidates or did not cast a vote for the presidency. Compare that to the general election, in which Clinton received 48 percent of the popular vote, while Trump received 46 percent of the vote and third-party candidates received 6 percent of the vote. It’s true that young voters tend to skew slightly more Democratic than the overall population, in the 2016 election. But it wasn’t by a large margin.
For this reason, it’s not just Democrats who should work to improve voter turnout among young people. Youth voter engagement is essential to a representative democracy to ensure all interest groups exercise their opportunities to exert political will. It’s also important because engaging people to vote as young people increases the likelihood that they will continue to vote in the future; it creates a pipeline for voter expression that forges the lifeblood of our democracy.
During a time when voting rights are under threat, policy initiatives that lower the barriers to voting are more important than ever. The 2016 presidential election was the first presidential election in 50 years to take place without the full force of the monumental Voting Rights Act, which faced Supreme Court challenge in 2013. As a result, 14 states instituted new voter suppression policies, including reductions in early voting, racially-charged voter ID laws and a whopping 868 fewer polling sites. While the full extent of these policies are largely unknown, one 2014 study found 12.8 percent of voters in a Texas Congressional district cited a lack of voter-acceptable IDs as a reason for not voting, even though only 2.7 percent of those voters actually lacked the acceptable ID.
The unprecedented political energy among teenagers after the school shooting in Parkland is an opportunity to reverse some of these trends. Under significant structural barriers, young and marginalized people must be given the tools to make voting as easy as possible.
Voting rights have always lacked the appeal of other, more conspicuous policy debates. And at a time when stunning political distractions constantly plaster headlines, maintaining focus on this structural mechanism of divvying political power is crucial. Its foundational role and transformative impact warrants our full attention.
Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.